By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 21, 2018 | 12:35 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – Following the decision by the Prince George County Board of Supervisors to decline the school board’s request of using the county-owned Yancey Tract along Route 156 as the site for a new elementary school in the county and revelations about the timetable for water and sewer work to get to the site, the Prince George School Board chairman says this places them in a bit of a time crunch to get a new school opened.
Last week, supervisors, through consensus unanimously agreed to not accept the Yancey Tract as the site of the school division’s newest elementary school, one of two proposed in the county to replace aging open-air facilities Walton and Beazley Elementary, with some on the board questioning if the county would be losing a key economic development asset along Prince George Drive should a school be placed on the nearly 200-acre parcel.
In the audience, Prince George County School Board Chairman, Robert Cox listened to the conversations between supervisors at their work session, joined by other school division leaders, including Superintendent Renee Williams. After hearing the board’s decision to not move forward with the Yancey property as the home of one of the schools, Cox said the decision does place a challenge on the school board, who have now been tasked to bring alternative sites to supervisors for consideration.
“We kind of have our hands tied with what they have imposed on us given the time limits before us,” Cox remarked, referring to a detailed presentation given by county consultants Dewberry where it was revealed, at present, there are no water or sewer services near the Yancey property and to get a water and wastewater assets to the property line, it would take roughly 24 months and over $2 million.
“That puts us at July 2020,” he continued. “If we want to open a school in September of 2020, we need to be moving quick, overwise we are not going to make it. If they started the water and sewer at the same time, we would be finishing the school at about the same time where the water would be ready to be connected. We don’t want to open a school in the middle of the year, we could do it but there is a lot of headache in trying to move people during a Christmas break and getting people and students into a new building. You would be starting the year over.”
The decision to vote against the use of the Yancey Tract for the new school comes only months after the school board and the county agreed to take a slower approach to build the new school. During the budget process earlier in the year, the county was prepared to implement a five-cent tax increase to help finance the estimated $30 million in costs for building the new school.
Leading up to the public hearing on the county’s budget, it was Cox, speaking on behalf of the school board, who informed the public and supervisors that a tax increase would not be needed and, while they could build and open a school on a more compressed timeline, they had decided to take a bit more time in development and construction of the school, which resulted in the tax increase being nixed from the budget due to significant spending for the school not occurring during the now-current fiscal year.
For Cox, following the board’s decision, he believes removing the Yancey Tract from consideration negates their efforts to move on a slower timeline and pushes the school division back into a position of building a school in less than two years.
“We had talked about doing an 18-month timeframe and they asked us to back off of that and take our time,” Cox said. “We did that, but now, you’re putting us back into that 18-month timeframe and, if you keep pushing us up to that window, we are not going to have a choice.”
Cox further explained that the building specifications need to be looked at in this preliminary stage as school leaders are interested in building an 850-student school, as opposed to the 750-person schools that been proposed to replace Walton and Beazley in an effort to get a handle on space issues at other county schools.
“An extra 100 students will give you about four additional classrooms,” the chairman explained. “Which would allow for future growth and to relieve overcrowding at other buildings. Right now, Walton is right at capacity, South [Elementary] is over-capacity, which is why we have the ‘educational cottages’ there so that would give us more of an opportunity to shift small populations to another building to alleviate overcrowding at some buildings.”
He continued by noting two, 850-student schools would also help in terms of factoring in the unknown when it comes to growth at neighboring Fort Lee, considering a large number of military families are enrolled in the school division.
“One minute you hear [Base Realignment and Closure] is coming, then you hear we aren’t going to do BRAC, then you here we are going to do some growing then we’re not,” he said. “We have to stay fluid in what we do and maintain a cushion for students that may come into this county. The economy is picking up, housing starts are on the rise and that’s happening here in Prince George. It may not be at the pace a lot of people want to admit but new homes are being built. 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.”
Speaking to the trailers, which Cox referred to as “educational cottages,” he explained having those facilities on school campuses present their own security issues as one of the prevailing factors for Walton and Beazley’s replacement is due to security, given they’re an open-air facility that is harder to secure than traditional school buildings.
“You can’t secure a trailer,” he remarked. “You bring in the risk of severe weather. We do say you can bring students in, but there have been times where storms come up in a matter of seconds and there is no warning. Do we want to take that chance?”
Cox continued, “Do we want to take a chance of a student being caught in the crossfire of somebody with a gun in a trailer? That is the problem we have right now with Beazley and Walton. They are brick-and-mortar buildings but each classroom has individual entrances with windows lining them. They were fine in the sixties when we built schools like that, but this is 2018 and we are in a different world. I would not want to be in these gentlemen’s shoes if we had something happen in Prince George County where a student is shot or killed and its because we’re dragging our feet and not doing what’s right.”
“What they should be doing is pulling the trigger and saying ‘let’s build them both,'” Cox said.
Based on estimates during the 2018 budget building process, the cost of two schools in one fiscal year would have resulted in a ten-cent real estate tax increase, with the total cost of the 750-student schools being estimated at just over $29 million each.
“Let’s do it now, let’s get them done and they are out of the way,” Cox remarked. “Then we can look at a new high school down the road,” referring to Prince George High School, which was built in 1976 and has been proposed to receive a multi-million dollar renovation but, discussions of that renovation were not part of the discussion of the construction of two new schools.
The chairman went on to say that he believes the county should have come forward sooner with their objection to using the Yancey Tract as both the county and school division worked on this project over the last year.
“We have wasted three or four months back and forth about this Yancey Tract for them to sit here tonight and say we want you to bring another option,” Cox said. “Why did you tell us that four months ago? We could’ve been working on something else different instead of spending all this time and here we are [in mid-July] and you want us to bring you another piece.”
“If you can’t build it there, tell us where you want us to build it,” he continued. “That’s what it is going to come down to. They aren’t asking us, they are asking us to tell them what they want to hear.”
Following last week’s meeting, Cox said he and his fellow board members are going to prepare some other options for this school now that their primary pick has been rejected.
“I will take it back to the board, get their consensus because we aren’t a one-person board, there’s five of us and we will make this decision together,” he said. “Some may agree, some may disagree, but at the end, we will all agree to do what’s right.”