By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 27, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – In August of 2017, a core committee team came before the Prince George Board of Supervisors with a large proposal that carried an even larger price tag – replacing two elementary schools reasonably soon and renovations to the county high school at an estimated cost of $60 to $80 million for all three projects combined.
One year later, while one of the two elementary schools was nearly funded in the FY2019 budget through a five-cent tax increase before being eventually scrapped due to the prospect of significant spending on the new school not occurring during the now-current fiscal year, supervisors and the Prince George School Board are seemingly at an impasse primarily centered around where the first of the two new schools would be located and the size of the building.
At the time of the August 2017 proposal, sites for the new school weren’t discussed but, during the budget-building process, the school board had eyed the property along Route 156 and Quaker Road known as the Yancey Tract as the site of the new school that likely would be Walton Elementary School, which was identified by the core committee as the school in most need of repair due to security concerns and the overall age of the building, having been built in the 1960s along with Beazley Elementary School, the second building needing replacement.
The property, which has been the target of a number of proposed projects during the county’s ownership of the property that failed to exit the conceptual stage is made up of 175-acres of property just south of Pole Run Road and two of the county’s other schools, N.B. Clements Jr. High and Prince George High School.
Zoned currently as “R-A, Residential Agricultural,” as of 2018, the land was assessed at a market value of $762,000, down from the $907,000 in market value the property had been assessed dating back to 2013.
While the land currently sits vacant, ideas for the property’s use have been swirling over the last several months, with serving as the home for a new elementary school resting last on the list, mainly due to the costs involved with running water and sewer to the property line of the Yancey property.
According to Dewberry, the county’s utilities consultant, the cost to only service a school at the property through a water extension and sewer connection would cost roughly $2.3 million, with that estimated price tag not including the cost of the water service and sewer laterals for the school as Dewberry’s analysis only looked at getting the infrastructure to the property line.
On the other side of the issue, supervisors have openly expressed concerns about the Yancey property being used for a school facility instead of something that could serve to address the county’s infrastructural and economic development needs. During the summer, county leaders declined to consider the school division’s first-choice of the Yancey property as the new home of Walton Elementary School, requesting that additional options be brought to the board of supervisors.
“I want to make sure we are not giving up an asset when it comes to the Yancey Tract,” he added following the county’s decision, suggesting that the site could be suitable for other purposes, such as business or industry, other than serving as the home of a new elementary school.
One of those options was presented in July during the board’s work session at the Central Wellness Center, a short drive from the Yancey property – the site of the county’s wastewater treatment plant. During that meeting, several preliminary concepts for how a plant could be placed on the property were presented by staff as the county explores how it will address infrastructural needs for the future, including water and sewer services, which has been a topic of concern for Webb since he was elected to the board.
“We have to do something about utilities overall because this is a big countywide issue,” he said. “We can’t keep kicking this can down the road.”
Webb continued, “My concern is, if we don’t do anything about utilities over the next five to ten years, we are going to be putting everything on the taxpayers to carry the burden. We have got to get utilities here so we can get some industry. We don’t have to grow like Chesterfield [County], but we are way behind the curve based on this report.”
The Yancey property also remains the top option for the county’s proposed wastewater treatment plant due to the property being just outside of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, presenting some advantages in terms of operations and regulations, and its proximity to Southpoint Industrial Park, an area the county is working to spark further development within.
With the Yancey property off the table for the school division, three other options remain – using the current home of Walton by purchasing six acres and building the school behind the existing building before tearing the old school down, or the county-owned properties on Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass or along Courthouse Road, a short distance from Beazley Elementary.
Through debate, the school division has placed their line in the sand by formally stating on several occasions that the current Walton is their preferred site for the school’s replacement, even though, according to their own architects, building the school on Middle Road would be the cheapest option at $5.6 million as building at Walton would cost roughly $325,000 more at $5.9 million, mainly due to demolition costs at the old school.
During the back and forth, citizens have also expressed their concerns about where the school should be placed, with resident and grandson of Supervisor Marlene Waymack, Joseph, saying it’s his belief the county needs to be mindful of the county’s long-term needs before placing a school on prime commercial property, including the current Walton site.
“We face critical long-term decisions,” he said during the public comment period at last week’s meeting. “Walton, it needs to be replaced, no doubt about it. But it sits on another piece of prime property, much like [J.E.J] Moore [Middle School], right there situated [at] 460, 295, 95, and 85. I guarantee you [Deputy County Administrator Jeff] Stoke is good at attracting business for our county and if we give him the task of trying to find a business to try and match for that property when we vacate it, we can have a very profitable business on our tax roll.”
“School locations shouldn’t be used as a cover to expand water and sewer for other development purposes when developers should pay for that if developers want to build subdivisions themselves,” he continued. “This is not the time to play games with taxpayer money. There is no need to raise taxes, but just make better decisions with the taxes we collected.”
When asked for his take on Waymack’s comments, Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox believed other properties owned by the county could serve a better commercial function than the current Walton site.
“Why can’t the [Courthouse Road] Tract be used for commercial property,” he questioned. “That is right there in the village of Prince George. That would be advantageous toward bringing business in where you are already building up. I can see more of that being a commercial strip that you would want to develop between the courthouse and Circle D Mart. I have heard some people who have said they would like to use us reutilize our existing school sites so this is a perfect opportunity. We will re-use the site and re-utilize it, and everything stays the same and at a cost saving.”
In addition to the debate on the location, the size of the school remains a point of contention between the two boards. At the time of the 2017 report from the core committee, it was proposed that two, 750-student schools be built to replace Walton and Beazley Elementary Schools. In order to pay for that, a five-cent tax increase was proposed to help generate the nearly $30 million to pay for one of the schools.
Over the course of this summer, school board leaders have asked supervisors to consider two, 850-person schools instead, with the extra 100 students per school equating to roughly four additional classrooms, according to school officials.
“We need to have that additional capacity at our schools that will allow us to do that and doing two, 850-student schools would give us a 200-student cushion to allow us to move people around and not have to bring trailers in and set them up outside,” Chairman Cox said following the Yancey property rejection.
Now, speaking after last week’s decision to table the selection of Walton’s new home until September, Cox remarked that he and the school board “got busy and found an option that can save money and it is an 850-student school.”
“So, it’s 100 more students and saving money,” he remarked, referring to placing an 850-person school at Walton. “This puts it back right back where it was at, it is better located and will be a better advantage for us, for transportation and parents coming to the school, for Fort Lee who attends school there. It’s a win-win.”
Cox’s comments come only weeks after a supervisors work session where he explained the plan remained focused on a 750-student 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 following the July work session. “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.”
For some supervisors, including Chairman Alan Carmichael, he expressed concern about what the difference in price will be in building a bigger school than the one proposed, then removed from the FY2019 budget. In an interview, he explained that the five-cent tax increase that was proposed would’ve helped pay for the 750-student school, providing $30 million in funding, but with the increase in school size, it’s unknown how much of a tax impact it will have until the county received firm numbers on the total cost for construction.
The project would also require an adjustment to the county’s memorandum of understanding with the school division, which details the amount of county funding the school gets in a given year, to allow for funds derived through tax increases to pay for school capital projects to be exempt from the MOU. A draft of that updated agreement has been approved and sent to the school division for consideration and feedback.
The county and school division are expected to be in the same room again on September 11 where further discussion on a site for the new school will occur.