Group tells leaders new school should be built at current Walton ES site

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 15, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

PRINCE GEORGE – A group of teachers and parents made their voices heard to members of the Prince George County Board of Supervisors and the Prince George School Board as they collectively spoke in favor in building a proposed new elementary school close to or, preferably at their current home at Walton Elementary School.

During Wednesday’s regular board meeting, roughly a dozen people made their way into the county boardroom to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting, voicing their support for a new Walton Elementary School and any efforts that could keep the school “on their end of the county” as members of both boards work together to find a middle ground to make the school become a reality.

“We know that schools last for 50 to 60 years and the right location is very imperative to our students, teachers, and parents,” resident and Walton Elementary School teacher Carrie Woodley said to supervisors.

A year ago, Prince George Public Schools, joined by the school board and their core committee presented their findings on the state of the school division’s facilities and it was recommended that both Walton and Beazley Elementary Schools be replaced due to their age and security concerns stemming from their design as open-air buildings, with Walton identified as the school most in need of replacement.

Since that time, a number of proposals have been floated by both the school board and supervisors centered possibly using one of several county-owned parcels one of the schools to be built on.

In the summer of 2018, supervisors declined a proposal from the school board to allow them to utilize a plot of land along Route 156 known as the Yancey property to build a new elementary school, asking the board to bring back an alternative site for consideration.

A resident and teacher at Walton Elementary School speaks on behalf of a number of others in the audience in support of building a new elementary school that will likely replace the aging Walton Elementary School on the school’s current property. (Michael Campbell)

Later that summer, during a work session at the Central Wellness Center, the school board presented the current Walton Elementary School property along Courthouse Road near U.S. Route 460 as their preferred alternative site, touting the land as being ready to build on, given the fact that water and sewer are already available and that it would help reduce redistricting impacts once the school opens. At that time, the school board said less than ten acres of land would need to be purchased as part of the construction of the school, which would be built behind the current Walton Elementary School facility and when the school is completed, the old building would be torn down and converted into a parking lot.

In September, supervisors unanimously voted to recommend a 75-acre property along Middle Road near Interstate 295 for a new elementary school, but, during their meeting in October, the school board narrowly voted 3-2 to reject the supervisors’ earlier proposal.

In previous interviews and during Wednesday’s meeting, Prince George School Board Chair Robert Cox explained he and his fellow board members are not opposed to the Middle Road property, stressing that it is just not the right site for Walton Elementary School, noting that a new Beazley Elementary School would best serve the community at that site.

Citing the core committee’s recommendations, school board chairman Cox has stated in the past that Walton needs to be replaced first, even after some supervisors have proposed building the school on Middle Road and, once that school opens, those Beazley Elementary School students could go to the new school and Walton’s students could go to the old Beazley as they work toward building a second school. Based on a recent financial analysis, that second school, if the new school was paid for during the upcoming fiscal year, likely wouldn’t be financially feasible until at least the 2027 fiscal year.

The rationale for the not building Walton Elementary at Middle Road, at least for Chairman Cox, has focused on the impact it would have on the transport of students, noting that some students living on the far end of Walton’s district, such as near Richard Bland College, have bus rides of just under an hour and a move to the Middle Road property could add six to ten minutes to those rides, a reality Woodley said she and the others in the audience understands.

“The transportation, as I am sure you have heard, is already an issue,” Woodley told supervisors. “We already have students who don’t get picked up until 4:30, 4:45 from Walton and when you move them even further away, they are just adding that time.”

She continued, “Where the teenagers might get in a car and leave their high school, our five-year-olds are getting on a bus and they are riding for over an hour.”

Woodley also spoke to the redistricting concerns that have been floated by school board chairman Cox, who provided supervisors with documents during their work session yesterday that detailed the impacts of redistricting across the four sites being looked at – Middle Road, the current Walton School, the Yancey property, and a plot of land near the current Beazley Elementary School on Courthouse Road known as the Buren property.

While the school board, and now teachers and parents have come out in support of an option to have the new school built at Walton, as of September, supervisors made a recommendation of Middle Road for a new elementary school, a recommendation that was voted down by the school board. (Michael Campbell)

Asking supervisors to keep the information being provided to them regarding redistricting impacts close to them because “it might create some nervousness” among parents before saying the materials would be emailed to supervisors directly and having the paper version of that information returned to him by supervisors, Cox did break down which schools would be affected depending on where the new school assumed to be Walton Elementary would go.

If the Buren or Middle Road properties are selected, Cox said Beazley, South, and Harrison Elementary Schools would be impacted. If the Yancey property were chosen for a new Walton, it would only affect South Elementary School, noting it would help to remove the trailers from use at the school.

“The approximate increase to travel time to the Buren property would be 18 minutes,” Cox said. “Middle Road would be a 20-minute increase and the Yancey property would be a seven-minute increase.”

During his remarks, Cox also formally pitched his idea to possibly doing a land swap between the school board and county for the Yancey and current Walton Elementary School site. If agreed upon by both sides, once the new school is completed at the Quaker Road property, the land where the old school is on Courthouse Road would be turned over to the county, who has eyed the property as a commercial real estate opportunity.

According to county documents, “placing the property back on the tax rolls, receiving future tax payments and providing an initial sale amount to the community outweighs the decision to keep this property as an elementary school when alternative locations are available.” That property has an estimated value of $2.16 million.

For Cox and those who spoke or showed support for those speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, a Walton Elementary on Middle Road continues to lack support.

“If we have to go to Middle Road, then we will just stay where we are,” Woodley said. “We will stay right at Walton and have the smallest classrooms and have good test scores. So, we can do what we need to do at an older school. We wouldn’t have the security, but at least we are in the right location for our parents and students.”

Those comments were echoed by parent and resident Brian Ellwood, who felt supervisors were focused too heavily on the financial details of the project and not seeing the need of the school and its students.

“As a parent and a third-generation citizen of Prince George County, I am concerned because you’re not concerned about the children of this county, mine included,” he said. “I am a teacher in this county and my concern is you care more about the money than you do about our future.”

“That property,” Ellwood said referring to the current Walton site, “is perfectly fine for a new school. I don’t understand why we can’t get rid of property that is designated commercial already in the county that has been sitting empty for years and you’re concerned about a property that’s not and you’re not concerned about our students’ future.”

“I am a resident of the county and I work in the county and I am going to have to eat the tax increase that you are going to incur for us,” he continued, referring to supervisors’ commitment to keep any real estate tax increase related to this $30 million project capped a five cents. “I will eat that if you put this school in the right place and I think anybody else will in the county will too. Make the right choice.”

Supervisors will now review the new data provided by the school board regarding redistricting as they both work to find a solution to the satisfaction of both boards.

Chairman Cox said he is hopeful both supervisors and the school board will be able to hold a joint meeting in the near future to discuss the topic further.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: New Elementary Schools in Prince George County

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