Decision on new school location could come this month

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 9, 2018 | 1:20 p.m. 

School Board says current Walton site is preferred option for new elementary school

PRINCE GEORGE – Nearly a year to the day after supervisors were presented with the report that the county school division would need to replace two of the county’s aging educational facilities, a final decision on where one of those buildings will go could come as early as next week.

During the Prince George Board of Supervisors’ special retreat at the Central Wellness Center in Disputanta last week, county leaders unanimously voted to make a decision on where the replacement for Walton Elementary School would be placed out of a small handful of sites already owned by the county during the August 14 regular meeting, tasking the school system with bringing back information on the feasibility of placing a school on the proposed sites just over a month after the county declined Prince George Public Schools’ first pick for the new school’s location, the Yancey property along Prince George Drive and Quaker Road.

A lengthy discussion was had between supervisors and county staff during the retreat as they picked up where they left off from their July work session that saw county supervisors agree via consensus to ask the school board to bring back alternative locations after supervisors said they had concerns about using the Yancey property, a 175-acre piece of county-owned land, for something like an elementary school when there could be other uses for the land, such as the proposal revealed later through a report delivered by county consultants Dewberry that showed conceptual images of what a wastewater treatment plant could look like on the site and how that would benefit the area and the Southpoint Business Park nearby and the cost that would be involved with bringing water and sewer utilities to the site for the purpose of a school, which saw estimates of over $2 million to bring the services to the property line, which didn’t include required laterals and other elements needed to fully service the proposed school.

Last Tuesday, the supervisors assembled minus Chairman Alan Carmichael, who was absent from the meeting, continued to reiterate their opposition to using the Yancey property, explaining that a county-owned plot along Middle Road is now leading the pack as the prime location for the school.

“I said I would support a school, but I will not support anything that hurts Prince George County over the long term,” Supervisor T.J. Webb said regarding his steadfast opposition to the school being placed on the Yancey property. “We don’t have industry in this county but we better damn well get some or get some revenue from something else because we don’t have what Chesterfield and Colonial Heights has got.”

According to county officials, with the Yancey Tract no longer in consideration as a site to become the home of either Walton or Beazley Elementary Schools, both schools identified by a school division core committee as needing replacement on the grounds of security and age, three remaining county-owned locations remain on the table. 

Referred to by Supervisor Floyd Brown, Jr. during last week’s meeting as “the focus” for a new school, the Middle Road property being considered is a 75-acre plot of land across the street from New Jerusalem Baptist Church near the Interstate 295 overpass. As of 2018, the residential-agricultural zoned land is valued at $261,700.

Beyond Middle Road, a site along Courthouse Road, a short drive from the current Beazley Elementary School, referred to as the Buren property is on the shortlist of potential locations, along with using the existing site of Walton Elementary School on the opposite end of Courthouse Road, demolishing the old school and building a new facility there, but, it was revealed during the meeting that the county would need to acquire an additional six acres of land in order to build a new school on the property, primarily to allow the school to be built further back off the roadway in the interest of safety.

Finally, while not a leading contender, a fourth option was presented publically to supervisors and the public as a whole which could see the Federal government transfer land back to the county from the Fort Lee military base near the Bull Hill Road-A Avenue traffic circle in order to construct a school at that facility. According to a document distributed by the county, the donation of land to the county to build a new elementary school, there would also serve to address some military readiness and quality of life goals for the facility, including long bus rides, increased safety and security of students, and a “synergy created through access to on-post services.”

Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox speaks on behalf of the board during the Prince George Board of Supervisors’ retreat this month, where the location of a new elementary school was discussed at length. (Michael Campbell)

Present for last week’s retreat, Prince George Schools Superintendent Renee Williams and county school board leaders Robert Cox and Lewis Stevenson were actively listening to the conversation between supervisors regarding the properties and, when given the opportunity to share their thoughts on the proposals, Cox shared his view on the importance of investing in the school division.

“We don’t have industry here,” he remarked. “There are three things that bring people to this county: Property taxes, low crime, and quality schools. We want to keep our schools at the top and being the best and to do that, we need good teachers and we need our buildings to be good for our students.”

The school division also remained committed to replacing Walton first, which was identified as needing replacement more than Beazley, with the school board’s position being, now that the Yancey Tract is off the table, the preferred location for the new Walton Elementary School is at the school’s current home. According to Prince George County School Board Chairman Robert Cox, building the school on the current site and acquiring through either purchase or donation of six additional acres would allow for the new school to be built while the old school is still in use. Upon completion of the new school, Cox said the old building would be demolished and converted into parking.

That position was driven home further by Prince George School Board Vice-Chairman Lewis Stevenson, who explained the costs of installing needed infrastructure at the other proposed sites would be far more than at the current Walton site, which has connections already and the cost of acquiring the six additional acres wouldn’t be as expensive as the savings gained by not having to install water lines to the site as some supervisors openly expressed opposition to purchasing more land.

“The cost of getting water at Middle Road is $1 million and at the Buren property, it’s $1.25 million. At Walton, it’s zero,” Stevenson remarked. “The infrastructure is already there and, if there was a purchase of six acres, we’re not talking about a $1 million purchase. In this case, Walton becomes the most cost-efficient site. It sounds like the board [of supervisors] has already decided where they need a school, but I hope that decision takes all factors into consideration, not just not wanting to buy more land.”

In addition, speaking to the future of Beazley Elementary School also identified for replacement, Chairman Cox said the Middle Road property would be preferred site for that school’s new building.

In addition to where the school will be built, supervisors also questioned how large that school as talk of estimates of how much an 850-student school has begun to circulate. Following last month’s decision by supervisors to decline the Yancey Tract as the new school’s home, Chairman Cox explained that an 850-student building, as opposed to the currently planned 750-student facility, would provide roughly four additional classrooms and “would allow for future growth and to relieve overcrowding at other buildings,” particularly at schools like South Elementary, where trailers are being used as makeshift classrooms.

When asked last week after the supervisors’ retreat, Cox said the plan remains to build a 750-student school, but the school board asked their architects for an estimate on how much it would cost to add an additional 100 students to that building. 

“We asked the firm for an adder, or an estimate that we could present to the board of supervisors to increase it by 100 students if they felt the need to do it now while the prices are lower,” Cox said. “That is all it was. It was just to get that additional price quote so we can provide to [supervisors] and say, ‘We can build a 750-student school, or for ‘x’ amount of dollars, we can go ahead and make it an 850-student facility to add more capacity for future growth.”

During the budget-building process earlier this year where a five-cent real estate tax increase was eyed to pay for the construction of a new Walton Elementary School, it was revealed that one 750-person school would cost just over $29 million. As of press time, the estimated cost of an 850-person school was not available.

As part of the August 14 meeting where a decision could be made on the location of the first of two new county schools, the school board is expected to bring the pros and cons of the different locations on the table, mainly Middle Road, Courthouse Road, and the current Walton site, before making a final decision. Some of those items would include costs of destruction of the old Walton school and how the county would go about acquiring the additional six acres needed for the project.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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