Fort Lee land transaction proposal for school site now at Pentagon

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 23, 2019 | 12:30 p.m. 

Transaction expected to be completed in late 2020, per county leaders

PRINCE GEORGE – A proposal to execute a land transaction between Prince George County and Fort Lee for the purpose of locating a new school on the site continues to make its way through the Federal government’s pipelines as it’s now reached Washington, according to county leaders.

Last week, Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft shared during his update to supervisors and the community at Wednesday’s board meeting that the proposal “is now at the Pentagon level for approval,” adding that he was scheduled to a conversation with military officials at the end of last week to get a further update on the matter.

The news comes nearly a month to the day of the county’s announcement of ongoing conversations with Fort Lee regarding the possibility of some form of a land transaction between the county and the military base near the A Avenue roundabout at the intersection of Routes 630 and 634 that could serve as the new home of the county’s next elementary school, which is expected to be Walton Elementary School’s replacement.

In October, supervisors, namely Chairman Donald Hunter, read a prepared statement that confirmed the talks had been active for the last several months, with both Hunter and school board chairman Robert Cox confirming a site that was alluded to in June by Cox was in fact the prospective sites near Fort Lee’s A Avenue gate.

“This location appears to have the needed infrastructure to serve a new elementary school. Its location would strengthen an already solid partnership between Prince George County and Fort Lee,” Chairman Hunter remarked at the time. “The board of supervisors looks forward to moving ahead with this project and providing a safe and modern facility for young people to learn and teachers to teach in an effective manner.”

While recent school board meetings the idea of possibly developing a new school along Route 156 at a large plot of land known as the Yancey Tract was resurfaced following comments by its chairman Robert Cox and other members of the board, shortly after news of the Fort Lee-Prince George talks went public in October, he said the A Avenue site did offer some positives for the school board.

“The advantage to [the location] is it is close to Fort Lee so [it may] reduce transportation costs and time for the Walton school to be right there,” he remarked. “Even though Walton is not that much further up the road but, you can run kids out of the gate. It may, this is just me thinking, [let us] see a point that Fort Lee would be willing to transport their own kids off-post to that school. It is always an option if we get into another transportation crisis that we have been in with buses, we could always reach out to Fort Lee and say, ‘Hey, could you help us out for awhile? You have buses and trained drivers. Could you help transport kids to that school for us for the interim until we get some drivers trained?’”

The school board chair continued, “It opens up so many options for us to work with Fort Lee. Fort Lee was excited when they came to us about forming a partnership because Fort Lee has always been a partner to us.”

Since that time, Prince George County Public Schools alongside their engineering partners Moseley Architects has presented refreshed financial data that takes into consideration the expected timetable for getting access to this site near A Avenue, which, even though it has reached the Pentagon as of last week, the transaction between the county and Fort Lee won’t be final until the fourth quarter of next year.

If the school district finalizes a site by January of 2021, in line with current estimates for the Fort Lee site, the school project would head to bid the following year and be completed in September of 2023 at a cost of $35 million. If the school system were to have a suitable site by March of 2020, which would likely mean the Fort Lee plots wouldn’t be the site for the new school given the current timetable, the remainder of that year could be spent conducting design and engineering activities and head to bid in February of 2021 with an expected opening in January of 2023 at a cost of $32.9 million, creating an estimated savings of just over $2 million.

“If a site was selected today, it would take two years minimum to have a school completed on an accelerated schedule,” Prince George Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff said in a series of October presentations to the school board and board of supervisors. “This would put the move-in at January 2022 as the earliest possible move-in date.”

Last month, in an effort to be prepared to begin development as soon as they are able, supervisors approved a request from the school division for the county to provide $1 million in funding to allow for architectural and design work to begin on the project, much to the delight of parents and teachers at Walton Elementary School, who have been vocal in their demands for action to be taken by local leaders following several bouts of reported illnesses due to mold and air quality issues in the aging school and disruptions to instruction due to classrooms being closed for cleaning and remediation, forcing pupils to be moved to alternate locations in the school, which dates back to the 1960s.

In addition, in the short-term, the county gave the school board the green light to move forward with the purchase of a series of trailers, or educational cottages, as they are called by school division leaders, that will serve as classroom space when a cohort of students need to be moved to allow for a classroom’s remediation at a cost of roughly $450,000.

It was floated in October by county leaders to request a public hearing to allow for the purchase of six more trailers that are part of PGCPS’ capital improvement requests through the use of bond proceeds from the county’s spring borrowing this year but, there has been no movement on that request. The county would likely need to hold a public hearing on using borrowing funds on a different project than what was approved at the time of the debt issuance, based on comments from their bond attorney Doug Sbertoli at the time.

“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 in the spring of this year. “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.”

As for the land transaction, Ashcraft said he may have more information for the community and supervisors following his conversation with military officials.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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