County votes down hearing on Walton ES funding for air quality improvements

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: December 18, 2019 | 12:30 p.m. 

– Proposal sought to provide $170k to support HVAC work at Walton

PRINCE GEORGE – Prince George County supervisors rejected a proposal by representative T.J. Webb that would’ve allowed the public to share their thoughts on a plan to reallocate funds from the county’s springtime borrowing to support a school division request for funding to help pay for the first phase of HVAC remediation at Walton Elementary School.

On a 2-3 vote, with Chairman Donald Hunter and Supervisors Alan Carmichael and Marlene Waymack serving as the trio of dissenting votes, the motion to advertise a public hearing for early January was defeated, which would’ve centered around taking roughly $380,000 from a total of $450,000 that had been borrowed in the spring for the development and construction of a concession stand and restroom at Scott Park and using it to cover a pair of expenses related to Walton Elementary School and their ongoing air quality issues.

Out of that $380,000, approximately $210,000 would have been used to purchase three additional trailers, known as “educational cottages” within the school division, as part of Prince George County Public Schools’ request within the county’s capital improvement plan. These trailers would have been in addition to the three trailers the school system bought earlier this year in an effort to provide additional classroom space at Walton Elementary in order to minimize impact on student learning when a classroom is taken offline and its cohort of students are moved to alternate locations.

The remaining nearly $171,000 would have covered the shortfall the school division faces when it comes to fully funding a proposal by Moseley Architects, who provided a detailed report on the facility’s HVAC needs and multiple options for addressing them, all with different price points.

As part of the plan, some of the funds from the Scott Park project would’ve been used to buy three additional trailers and also cover an $170,000 request from PGCPS of the county to aid in the first phase of HVAC remediation at Walton Elementary. (Michael Campbell)

Webb has led the push for the public hearing since bringing forth the proposal for reallocating the county’s debt proceeds to the needs at Walton roughly two months ago. At that time, he understood, due to the county having borrowed the money for specific purposes, a public hearing would be needed to inform both the lender and the public that the money is proposed to be moved to a different project.

This was supported by comments from the county’s bond attorney Doug Sbertoli earlier this year.

“You can utilize the funds across the spectrum of what has been noticed … but, if it is an entirely new project that wasn’t identified in the public hearing notice, then, in order to open up that opportunity to finance that project, a public hearing would need to be held,” Sbertoli said at the time. “You are limited to the universe of identified projects to be financed at this point. You can eliminate a project or add a project but, you have to go through the public hearing process if that project is entirely new and [was] not identified in the previous notice.”

Late last month, Webb opted to remove a planned public hearing from the supervisors meeting agenda, saying, “In conversations with [Superintendent] Dr. Lisa Pennycuff, she asks if I could hold off and wait until they get their presentation to us on [December] 10, which, when you are doing a public hearing and you are going to borrow money, you have to specifically state why, but we don’t have the specific language at this point in time.”

Last week, that presentation was delivered by Pennycuff and Moseley representatives Doug Westmoreland and Tyler Whately, which saw supervisors get a look at what the school division plans to do in the short term to address air quality needs at Walton.

In specific rooms, named “DG-5, DG-3 Clinic, E-Conference, [and] “PALS” based on the school’s schematic,” the school system plans to replace existing through wall units with new units to provide more outside air and better dehumidification. According to Pennycuff and their engineering partners, no matter the option selected of “good-better-best,” this is a fix that would need to be implemented.

In the I-Building, which is the brick facility that stands behind the classrooms at Walton and serves as the home to the school’s gym and resource rooms, contractors plan to replace existing retrofitted unit ventilators with packaged vertical classroom units, such as Bard I-Tec series, “to provide HVAC system to meet current code.” at a cost of $570,000. This was considered the “better option,” with a replacement of the building’s system with a variable air-volume system, deemed the best option, costing just over $900,000.

In regards to existing packaged units, with which there are nearly four dozen shared across each of Walton Elementary’s open-air campus-style buildings, they plan to “provide new thermostats” along with “commercial grade dehumidifiers sized appropriately to handle the loads, bi-polar ionization units to improve indoor air quality, [and] upgrade exhaust systems to provide constant exhaust during” the school occupied hours at a cost of $265,000.

The next option, dubbed “better” by Moseley, would’ve seen the complete replacement of all rooftop units “with similarly configured units retrofitted into existing ductwork, with active dehumidification control,” at a heightened cost of $1.1 million. The “best” option would’ve allowed for all of those units to be replaced with “high-efficiency rooftop units” for $1.5 million.

In total, the recommendation presented and adopted by the school board totals $905,000, with the selections “representing the best value to provide an acceptable educational environment” at Walton Elementary,” with the “better” option at the I-Building allowing for those new units to be repurposed at other schools once the new Walton Elementary opens.

The school system opted to go with a phased approach, with Phase 1 including the resource rooms, the existing 39 packaged units and the I-Building gym at a cost of $415,000. Phase 2 would see the I-Building’s four classrooms done shortly after for $490,000.

Much of the first phase was funded through the reappropriation of unspent funds from the last fiscal year back to the school system by the county last week, with roughly $164,000 being earmarked to support the project. In addition, funds for renovations planned for the school system’s field house – $80,000 – were moved from that project in the county’s CIP to the Walton HVAC project, bringing the total available to $244,232.13, leaving PGCPS short by $170,767.87 and turning to the county to aid in the full funding of Phase 1.

In an interview after his effort to move forward with a public hearing was defeated, Webb said he believed, given the nature of the challenges Walton Elementary has faced, the project should have “taken priority” over the planned restroom and concession stand at Scott Park, noting the money already spent on design work for the stand wouldn’t be wasted, saying it can “be put into a folder and [held] until such time we come back to it,” adding that he feels the public will be “extremely disappointed” by the outcome of last week’s vote.

“I feel like I let them down,” the supervisor lamented. “I am sorry we weren’t able to make it happen.”

For outgoing school board member and Chairman Robert Cox, he believes last week’s votes demonstrates the county’s leadership don’t believe the needs at Walton are a top priority.

“It is demonstrating that it is not that important to them,” he said. “I have fought for my entire 16 years on the school board for equality between the county employees and school employees. “I always said we should have the same insurance plan, deductible, the same raise each year on both sides. The school system stands alone as an elected school board but it’s the Prince George County school system.”

“All of the kids deserve what every school has; a safe environment to learn, and we are not giving them that,” Cox continued.

In an interview, Supervisor Waymack explained her rationale for voting against the public hearing, saying she had made previous commitments to the community to see to it that the restrooms are built at Scott Park.

“The money they wanted to reallocate was already designated to build bathrooms back there on those new soccer fields and I had promised and given my word to some women who were asking for bathrooms back there because, when they go to those events, they have little children and ones who are participating in the events and they have to put the children in the car and drive all the way back to Scott Park,” she said. “Way back when we agreed to do this, I gave them my word I would do everything I could do to get bathrooms back there. I didn’t feel I could go back on my word.”

When asked, she said she doesn’t want her actions to be seen as her placing restrooms and concessions at Scott Park above the needs at Walton Elementary School.

“Certainly, if that is the last resort and the only thing we could do, I wouldn’t be against it,” Waymack said. “I am not sure we cannot find the money somewhere else. The children in Walton come first,” before adding that she knew she “had given her word to [a] group of women that I would try to get bathrooms for them.”

“That was the reason for my vote against it, we had already allocated that money and, we certainly will have to have a public hearing because, once you allocate the money, you can’t redo it without a public hearing,” she continued, saying she would be in favor of moving funds around to support the project in the future “if I have time to think about it and walk it through and see what the people want.”

“It just wasn’t clear to me [this] is what the people wanted. We always try to do what the public will is most of the time and we had allocated this money way back and to redo it again might be difficult but, it could be done,” Waymack continued, stressing she is in favor of doing what needs to be done to help Walton if the money can be found in another source.

“There is no one that isn’t in favor of that,” she said. “We want to do everything we can for Walton,” noting the county offered a proposal to the school division, but that the option was declined by the school board the day prior to last week’s supervisors meeting, with the school board desiring to stick with their own recommendation based on their engineer’s assessments.

The proposal, drafted by Mike Purvis, the county’s general services director, suggested “removing the existing heat source” in order to “eliminate the air flow from the existing system into the room.” Instead, a “window mount unit that [supplies] both heat and air conditioning pending the season” would be installed, along with a dehumidifier and hygrometer to measure and monitor the relative humidity at a cost of roughly $2,000 per room. When factoring in the 39 packaged units across the school’s buildings, the total comes to approximately $78,000. Additionally, the “per-room” cost could rise if utility and electrical work is needed to support the proposal.

Purvis’ letter continues, “It is our experience that the conditions that may exist, will take about 10-14 days to allow the corrective measures to be reasonably completed and confirmed to be providing an environment that would be conducive for safe occupation.”

He also asks to be provided “all reports, evaluations and recommendations that may have been generated” so his department can “understand the issues per location and direct our attention to each class and its specific conditions.”

“It is a sad situation. I wish we didn’t have to go through this, the teachers or children either,” Waymack closed.

Multiple attempts to receive comments from Chairman Hunter and Supervisor Carmichael on why they voted against the public hearing request were not returned.

For School Board Chairman Cox, he said he doesn’t know why Waymack, Hunter, and Carmichael voted against the public hearing and funding proposal last week.

“I just don’t understand what the other three board members are thinking about,” he remarked. “The utmost importance of this is the welfare of our students and employees that are in that building and by telling us they are not going to have a public hearing, they are not even letting the public have anything to say about it.”

“That is the whole idea of a public hearing, you bring something up like that and find out what the public’s feelings are but them voting to not have the public hearing, they shut the public out of the whole process now and they are saying we’re not doing it,” Cox closed.

When asked, Superintendent Pennycuff said, despite not receiving the requested funding from the county, they intend to move forward with the first phase of improvements. According to the school system, it is expected to go to bid in March of 2020, with contracts tentatively set to be signed by April.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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