By: Michael Campbell, News Editor
2:59 p.m. | August 17, 2017
PRINCE GEORGE – With the 2017-2018 school year fast approaching, the Prince George School Board is already looking further into the future about regarding where students will be taught as the board presented a proposal to county leaders that calls for the construction of two new schools and major renovations to the county’s lone high school.
At Prince George’s only regular meeting during the month of August, School Board Chairman Kevin Foster was joined by the head of the school board’s core committee William Young and School Superintendent Renee Williams as they presented the committee’s findings to supervisors, which recommends the replacement of Walton and Beazley Elementary Schools with new facilities that can serve 750 students each and the retention of an architect to look at design options and project budgets for a possible addition to Prince George High School.
During their presentation to leaders at the supervisor work session, Young said both Walton and Beazley were “beyond their useful life,” a conclusion he and the core committee drew following several meetings and walkthroughs of the county’s educational assets.
“If I had a fifth grader, after having toured Walton [Elementary School], I would rather have them attend my old school at Disputanta Elementary than going to Walton in its current condition,” he said, noting Walton’s age, having been built in 1960 while Beazley was constructed in 1964.
“Having served on the Prince George Industrial Development Board, I would hate to think what a CEO of a facility that wants to come here would think our schools given the condition that Walton is in,” Young continued.
As part of the plan to move forward with any sort of school replacement, the core committee’s proposal calls for site acquisition procedures to get underway to identify potential county owned and privately owned parcels that are conducive to housing elementary schools and hiring an architect for the design of the new elementary schools in the fall of 2017 “in order to meet a completion schedule for both new elementary schools by fall of 2020.”
Additionally, the plan calls for strategies to be looked at to help reduce the student population at South Elementary School to eliminate the use of trailers.
“Our future is determined by the quality and type of education that we offer,” Chairman Foster said to supervisors. “This cannot wait ten years. We must make changes now. This decision shouldn’t be about credit, or who gets the bill or not, who gets their name on a plaque or doesn’t, political favors or election campaigns, this should be about the education of the county, Fort Lee, and all of our children.”
Both Foster and Superintendent Williams also pointed to the school’s architectural design, being campus-style facilities, as another reason for the need to replace both of the elementary schools.
“Safety at open-campus schools is problematic,” Foster said. “Just recently, police scoured Walton as they searched for a weapon. It’s also not conducive to severe weather. We need to make schools a priority like public safety.”
“As a county resident, we need to make replacing and renovations a top priority,” Williams said. “We owe it to our students to give them a world-class education in world-class facilities.”
During the work session, Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Robertson, who worked with the school board’s core committee as they worked to develop this plan broke down the numbers behind the proposals with school leaders and the audience, noting that a 700-student school would cost roughly $25 million each.
According to the county, North Elementary School opened in 2008, cost approximately $21 million for a 750-student school.
Foster did note earlier conversations among the core committee that looked at 700-student facilities, but the decision was made to move to the 750-student threshold for the two proposed facilities as the additional space, equal to approximately two classrooms of 25 students each, would serve to address population concerns at South Elementary to help reduce trailer usage.
In addition, the proposed renovations to extend the life of Prince George High School, which was built in 1976, would add a minimum of $30 million to the project’s price tag. That could increase to $50 million if a “technical wing” and other enhancements are added to the school through the proposed remodel, bringing the total price tag for the committee’s recommendations to around $80 million.
“I don’t like hearing what you have to say but it doesn’t mean you’re not right,” Robertson said of the cost associated with the full execution of the committee’s recommendations. “$80 million is way more than we have we have in debt currently and that’s just for one thing, not including fire services and other departments.”
The proposal also seeks to have an architect hired sometime during the fall of this year to allow for the two schools to be built and open by the fall of 2020. When asked, Young said the committee “decided not to be bound” by what the Board of Supervisors could do and instead operated under the mindset of what the committee felt the timetable should be given the state of the two aging buildings and the third facility in need of life-extending renovations.
When it came to land for the two new schools, Foster said there are several county owned parcels in the Courthouse and Middle Road areas, but that a parcel would have to be found for Walton.
Additionally, the school board chairman hopes to be able to use the current North Elementary School as a guide to how the two new schools would be built in some way, shape, or form while removing some features that didn’t work well with North’s current design, such as the courtyard.
While last week’s work session was simply informational for supervisors and no action was taken on the proposal, Chairman Robertson did ask Williams and the school division to determine where Walton’s population is coming from and compile that information for a future joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and School Board.
School officials were also asked to begin looking at parcels in the area that could be used for construction of the new schools, particularly Walton, but Robertson asked the school division to keep their roster of prospective properties “confidential” as to avoid sudden price increases in the event landowners discover their parcel is being looked at by the school division for possible development.
As the work session wrapped, Robertson was weary of the possible debt implications the core committee’s proposal has on the county as a whole.
“To go into this much debt would result in an astronomical tax increase,” the chairman said.
He added that Prince George Finance Director Betsy Drewry would be part of the conversation regarding the proposal, bringing raw figures and data on the cost of borrowing the required funds for the proposal.
No date has been announced for the joint meeting of the board of supervisors and school board regarding the core committee’s proposal.