Funding proposal for Walton ES HVAC work to get public input

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 22, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Public hearing planned for February 11

PRINCE GEORGE – Nearly a month after Prince George Schools requested roughly $170,000 from the county to help support the school system’s efforts to remediate air quality issues at Walton Elementary School, supervisors have given the go-ahead for a public hearing next month to potentially provide that money by utilizing unspent funds in last year’s springtime borrowing.

Last week, supervisors voted unanimously to move forward with advertising a public hearing for Feb. 11 where residents will be able to share their thoughts on a proposal to use leftover monies from the county’s debt issuance in the spring of 2019 to help fund the school division’s $170,767 request of the county, which represents the shortfall PGCPS faces as it works to implement the first of two phases of HVAC improvements at Walton Elementary School. 

In December, Prince George County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff presented the findings of its contracted engineering firm Moseley Architects following the company’s detailed review of the school, along with a series of recommendations, dubbed “good, better, and best” options. 

According to that presentation, 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.

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,” for $570,000. 

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 for $265,000.

In total, the selected recommendations total $905,000, with the school division saying their choices “represent 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.

Instead of trying to pay for all of the work to be done at one time, the school board and PGCPS opted for a phased approach, with the first phase including the aforementioned work on the identified resource rooms and the I-Building and the installation of the 39 packaged units for $415,000. 

The second phase, which would focus on the I-Building’s four classrooms, will cost more, coming in at $490,000, according to school division documents.

In December, Pennycuff explained the school division would be able to cover a majority of the first phase of the work through the appropriation of unspent, or carryover funds back to PGCPS by the county. At that board meeting last month, roughly $164,000 of those funds were earmarked for the HVAC project. That was paired with $80,000 in funding that was moved from a planned fieldhouse project within the county’s capital improvement plan, giving PGCPS $244,232, or $170,767 short of what they need to complete the first phase.

During that December meeting where the school division laid out its request for county funding to support the project’s completion, Supervisor T.J. Webb made a motion to move forward with a public hearing on moving money in last spring’s borrowing from a planned concession stand and restroom facility project at Scott Park to help fund the Walton HVAC project and the purchase of three additional trailers, referred to as “educational cottages” by the school system. 

Those trailers would have been in addition to the three trailers purchased in the fall in an effort to provide additional classroom space at Walton Elementary in order to minimize the impact on student learning when a classroom is taken offline and its cohort of students are moved to alternate locations.

That motion failed narrowly through a 3-2 vote, with Supervisors Donald Hunter, Alan Carmichael, and Marlene Waymack voting against it. When asked, both Hunter and Waymack said they felt the money could be found somewhere else without affecting the Scott Park project. 

Days later, that money would be found within the borrowing funds as Deputy County Administrator Betsy Drewry detailed during a work session just before Christmas, explaining $160,782 in unallocated funds remain from last spring’s borrowing as the closing costs for the debt issuance came in lower than expected, with only $112,691 of the $273,473 earmarked for those costs being used. 

Still short by roughly $9,985, Drewry added that investment interest could be used to cover the remainder, of which the county has $152,109 as of the close of last year, thus if approved, fulfilling the school division’s request in full.

Even though the money is considered “unallocated,” a public hearing is required because the borrowed funds would be used for something that was not specified during the initial bond issuance public hearing last year, a fact confirmed by the county and its bond attorney at different points throughout 2019.

Following the Feb. 11 hearing, the county could then decide to approve or deny the appropriation of funds to the school system for the project, which is currently underway despite PGCPS not having the money currently to finish the first phase.

While the board voted unanimously in favor of proceeding with the public hearing, Supervisor Floyd Brown, Jr. said he had some concerns but was in favor of it going out to residents to allow them to have a say in the proposal. In a later interview, Brown said he is in complete support of the school system and their needs, having served as one of the two approving votes in December’s failed public hearing request, but he said the unspent funds that would be used in this proposal had been eyed to be used “for something else in the county that was of need.”

“The money that we had an opportunity to redirect,” Brown said, referring to the $450,000 borrowed for the Scott Park multi-purpose building, “were monies that we had already borrowed and we were paying back and instead of building a concession stand that is going to be used maybe six to seven months out of the year, we have a need of fixing the situation at Walton.”

“My point [last week] was that I still have some concerns and it more around funding but, I am not going to stop this from going to a public hearing because I personally feel the residents should get to weigh in on this,” the supervisor continued, adding that priorities can end up being shifted due to timing.

“I support recreation and a lot of things in the county but, a lot of this is about timing and sometimes, your priorities adjust based on timing. My concern was around funding and the appropriate funding source, not whether or not we should be doing that for the school,” Brown closed.

While some supervisors still weigh the details of the proposal, both Superintendent Pennycuff and School Board Chair Chris Johnson said they were appreciative of supervisors’ consideration of funding their request as some of the first phase approaches completion.

“We are in process but we need the remaining $170,000 to finish Phase 1,” Pennycuff remarked. “We are excited they are interested in moving forward with that and allowing us to proceed with this project.

According to the superintendent, Moseley’s work began immediately after the school system receiving their carryover funding request, taking advantage of the approaching winter break for students last month. When asked, Chairman Johnson said the relatively dry, mild winter is helping as crews tackle HVAC work on the roof of the school.

“One of the greatest advantages we have is the weather in general,” he said. “This time of year is less demanding but we need to be prepared when it gets hot inside, that is when we have our issues.”

As the school system works to address what Pennycuff described in October as “chronic” air quality issues at Walton Elementary, she thanked parents for their support and understanding. 

“Our parents have been very supportive. We have been able to show them the things we are trying to do,” she said. “There are updates on the Walton website under ‘air quality.’ There is a link at the top of the page where parents can get the most recent information. Our staff at the school board administration [office] and at the school are keeping parents updated on the work that is happening and they have been supportive.”

Pennycuff added the work continues to serve as an extension of life for Walton, with eyes focused on building a new school that will serve as its replacement. According to PGCPS officials, design work is underway for that new school as a final site has yet to be formally determined, through the county is pursuing a land transaction with Fort Lee that could serve as the school’s eventual site.

“They know the county and schools are working together to have the work that is critical done so we can extend the time that we are in our school for a few more years while we get our school built,” she closed. 

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