School Board pitches Walton site for new school after Middle Rd. rejection

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 17, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

PRINCE GEORGE – Questions about where the first of likely two new elementary schools will be located continues to swirl around the county after the Prince George School Board rejected supervisors’ Middle Road proposal, instead choosing to pitch the current site of Walton Elementary School to county leaders last week.

Last week’s proposal came just a day after the school board  during their regular meeting Monday spent time in closed session discussing a real estate matter before narrowly voting to reject the county’s proposal to build one of the elementary schools, which would likely be the replacement to Walton Elementary School along Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass. School board members Chris Johnson and Robert Eley were the two dissenting parties on last week’s 3-2 rejection vote. 

That vote was followed up by the Prince George School Board attending the Prince George Board of Supervisors meeting the following night, appearing as a late addition to the agenda to deliver a presentation on the viability of the current Walton School site as a plot for the new school, with this proposal not requiring the additional purchase of land behind the school, which was a sticking point for supervisors during a work session earlier this year, who verbally committed to not purchasing more land for this project.

During the school division’s presentation, it was revealed that the construction of the new school on the Walton property could be done without buying more land, opting to still build the school behind the current building, but instead of using North Elementary as the architectural model for the school, a more compact, two-story design would be used. The new design, based on a school out of York County, would keep the size of the building the same as North, 96,700-square-feet, but make the school slightly more compact, opting to remove the courtyard feature seen in the North Elementary building, among other changes.

Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox delivers the proposal for building a new elementary school at the site of Walton Elementary a day after the school board voted to declined supervisors’ proposal to build the school on Middle Road. (Michael Campbell)

According to officials during their presentation, this school would be able to be built while the current school remains in operation for students. Once construction of the new school is finished, the current Walton building would be torn down. 

In terms of site development costs, data provided by Moseley Architects, the firm contracted by the school division shows developing at Walton would be an estimated $100,000 more than at the Middle Road option, which was the cheapest of the four sites looked at by the company. With the unknown of property acquisition removed and water and sewer extensions not being needed at the Walton property, the increased cost between it and the Middle Road plot is the need to demolish the old school, estimated to cost roughly $750,000.

In total, the project, according to the school division’s capital improvement plan request, building the new school is expected to cost just over $32.1 million, based on it being developed at the Walton property.

As has been the case over the last several months since the county rejected West Quaker Road’s Yancey property as a possible location for the school, while delivering their presentation last week, the school board reiterated placing the new elementary school there would serve to prevent the need to redistrict and keep bus route lengths at their current levels, warning that a move to Middle Road for Walton could add nearly ten minutes to bus rides, bringing some routes to at or over an hour.

“Walton’s area serves all the way to Richard Bland College so we would have to bus kids all the way to Middle Road and, if we try to redistrict, people are going to be raising hell because their child won’t get to go to a new school,” Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox explained in past interviews with The Prince George Journal.

In addition, the school being proposed would be an 850-person facility, 100 more than the initial presentation made to supervisors in August of 2017 by the school division’s core committee. According to Cox, that additional capacity would serve to provide room for growth and allow for some relief in terms of overcrowding at South Elementary, reducing the need for trailers at the school, but some cost saving could be found by reducing the scope of the project back to the 750-student figure.

According to Prince George School Board Vice-Chair Lewis Stevenson, the school board was prepared to make this presentation in September prior to supervisors’ vote to support a school on Middle Road but, “through a miscommunication,” they didn’t know they could present at that time.

“We’re trying to do what is right for the taxpayer,” Stevenson said. “This proposal will allow us to build on this site without more land purchases.”

Stevenson also noted the concerns about security and safety at the facility brought up through the core committee have been addressed, explaining the concern comes from the current building being an open-air facility, which is harder to lock down than a traditional building. Through this design, he said the safety concerns “are alleviated.”

Supervisors digested the proposal made by the school board, but no action was taken on the matter. In an interview after the meeting, Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Alan Carmichael said the board stands by its recommendation of Middle Road for the new school.

“It is the most economical design at the time and still is as far as we are concerned,” he said. “We are always willing to listen to anything they have to say because information is golden when it comes to a big decision like this.”

This site on Middle Road is where supervisors would like to see the first of two new schools in the county, but the school board remains steadfast in their proposal to build the new school at the current home of Walton Elementary. (Michael Campbell)

“When we look at the sites we have,” Carmichael continued, “we have to take more than just one thing into consideration, such as the rate of what it is going to cost the citizens who pay the taxes in Prince George County.”

Earlier this year, to help finance the cost of building the school, which was estimated at $29.5 million, a five-cent real estate tax increase was eyed but canceled after it was revealed significant spending would not occur on the project during the current fiscal year. 

While Chairman Cox has explained that the $29.5 million price tag seen earlier in the year represents the costs of solely building the school and not site preparation costs, Chairman Carmichael said he is concerned about how the now-estimated $32.1 million project will impact county taxes.

“If we committed to going up five cents on the tax rate, that five cents all stem from a certain price tag on that school,” he said. “One penny equals $250,000, and that will bring $1,250,000 for the county,” adding that the revenue generated through that increase would go directly into the fund to pay for the capital project, instead of being split as per the county’s agreement with the schools, known as the Memorandum of Understanding. 

He also expressed concern about the underlying costs that could come from the use of an underground stormwater management system as opposed to retention ponds, something school board vice-chair Stevenson said is being looked at as an option. An advantage of using an underground system allows for the maximization of the available land, with Stevenson noting the building itself could not be built over the system, but parking lots could be. 

“[The school board] needs to continue to work with us when it comes to finding the best bang for the dollar in providing a new school and keeping the tax rate down for citizens, knowing that a second school is on the horizon,” Carmichael said.

When it comes to that second school, which most assume would be Beazley Elementary’s replacement, the school board has stated openly that the Middle Road site is ideal for that school, but they have also remained steadfast in their communications with supervisors in saying Walton must be replaced first, even when the idea of building Beazley first has been proposed by county leaders.

“I told them to go ahead and build Beazley, move the kids from the old Walton into the old Beazley and let them go to that school temporarily because it is in better shape than the old Walton,” Supervisor Floyd Brown, Jr. said. “It just takes some thinking outside of the box, but we already made our recommendation as far as we were concerned. The ball was in their court and they voted to reject the Middle Road property. We really didn’t ask for another option or idea.”

Brown continued, “If you vote down Middle Road and were determined that it is not going to be the other, I guess we will see where it falls out and it is a shame because, if a school doesn’t get built, it’s the children who get hurt.”

COMPLETE COVERAGE: New Elementary Schools in Prince George County

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