By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: February 12, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.
Fort Lee site remains on table as future site for second elementary school
PRINCE GEORGE – As design work for a new 850-student elementary school in Prince George remains ongoing, where that school may eventually be built has shifted as the school board voted to select a county-owned plot along Middle Road as its prime location for the new facility, a deviation from the previously seated board’s position.
During their regular meeting last week, the county school board voted 3-2 in favor of naming a 75-acre, county-owned property along Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass as their choice for the site of what will likely be Walton Elementary School’s replacement, once completed, with board newcomers Jill Andrews and Sherry Taylor casting the pair of dissenting votes.
According to the school division following last week’s vote, the decision to select the Middle Road site, which had been a source of contention between the previously seated school board and the county board of supervisors, largely focused on the need to move forward with the construction and occupancy of Walton’s replacement “on an expedited timeline,” calling it a “paramount goal” for both the board and school division in light of information shared by their contracted engineers tasked with addressing persistent air quality issues at the school.
During the fall of last year, in the face of concerns from parents, teachers, and students about “chronic” air quality issues at Walton Elementary, Prince George Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff and the school board tasked Moseley Architects with developing a series of remedies to address HVAC issues at the aging school.
The company would bring back a two-phase remedy, with the first phase currently underway with a price tag of over $400,000. The school division has asked the county to provide roughly $170,000 in local funding to help fund the remainder of the first phase’s work, which is expected to be considered this week during a public hearing.
According to Pennycuff last week, Moseley’s efforts “are expected to extend the life of [Walton Elementary’s] HVAC system by up to four years,” adding that it is “imperative for us to move forward with the building of a new school as quickly as possible.”
Since October, design work on a new school has remained ongoing after supervisors provided $1 million in funding to support the school system’s efforts in preparing for a new school once a site was determined.
In an interview, Prince George School Board Chairman Chris Johnson said the board had done its due diligence before eventually voting to select Middle Road, a location the previous board had voted down in 2018.
“We took a Saturday and looked at all the sites and possibilities and our number one concern is that we need to expedite this and start a school as quick as possible and move those students out of Walton” he said. “That has been our driving factor.”
He detailed, in the lead-up to last week’s vote, both the chairman and school board vice-chair Robert Eley held a joint meeting with supervisors chairman Donald Hunter and vice-chair Alan Carmichael to discuss the matter and “got a feel for what sites were on the table for us to move forward with,” noting that, “Middle Road proved to be the quickest site that we could move forward with,” with the school division’s retained architects confirming that, citing the “relative clearness” of the site and “availability to water and sewer.”
“With the information we received from the board of supervisors, while it certainly wasn’t our first choice, which has always been [the] Yancey Tract all along, if that wasn’t going to happen, it was time to move on and get a school built,” he said.
In late 2018, the Prince George School Board voted to reject supervisors’ recommendation of a county-owned site on Middle Road for a new elementary school. Last week, the school board would reverse course, voting in favor of the location to help further the process of building a new school along. (Michael Campbell)
In September of 2018, a year after the school division’s core committee presented their findings that showed the need to replace both Walton and Beazley Elementary School with more modern facilities, the county board of supervisors voted unanimously to recommend Middle Road as their preferred site of the first of two schools.
Minutes after that vote, then-school board chairman Robert Cox, Jr. told The Prince George Journal the school “won’t be built” at the location and that supervisors “violated their authority” by offering a recommendation of a site to the school board, adding, “It is not [supervisors’] purview to choose a site, that’s a decision of the public school board. This is not the site we want so we will be revisiting this.”
The following month, the school board would narrowly vote 3-2 to reject the county’s Middle Road recommendation, instead opting to present the current Walton Elementary School site on Courthouse Road as their preferred alternative, with the Yancey Tract, a 175-acre piece of county-owned property along Quaker Road and Route 156, being rejected by supervisors for consideration for a new school in 2018.
The county has since begun eyeing the Yancey parcel for the development of a wastewater treatment facility.
During that October 2018 vote, both Eley and Johnson voted against rejecting the county’s Middle Road recommendation. Roughly 16 months later, the pair joined newly elected board member Cecil Smith in voting in favor of the location last week.
When asked, Chairman Johnson said his votes on the issue have always been focused on getting a new school built as quickly as possible.
“I would’ve voted for the school almost on any property that could deliver that completion of the school the quickest, that was always my personal position,” he shared. “It was not the position of the board for the last few years.”
Of the dissenting votes, both Taylor and Andrews said they were happy about the prospect of a new school while they each had their own concerns that led to their votes against last week’s motion.
“I would have liked to have a couple of weeks to have a public forum so parents, teachers, and our citizens could have been heard on the two locations that were able to be considered by the board of supervisors,” school board member Taylor shared last week. “The landscape will change with either location and I wanted their input. If they selected Middle Road and were happy with that location then I would be in full support. I support whatever decision the board makes but would like the community to respond prior to moving forward.”
Echoing Taylor’s sentiments, Andrews said she too was glad to see a new elementary school potentially coming to Prince George but she “requested a meeting with parents and staff of Prince George because it affects more than just Walton Elementary,” saying she was “concerned about the location of the school being on the other side of the county from Walton.”
The distance of the Middle Road site from Walton Elementary’s current home was a point of contention for the school board when county leaders recommended the first of two new school’s be built at the site in 2018.
From their vote last week, some wondered what the selection of Middle Road means for ongoing efforts by the county to acquire property from neighboring Fort Lee for the development of a new school that likely would’ve been where Walton Elementary would’ve been built.
In October of last year, the county announced they had been in active talks with Fort Lee about a possible land transaction involving property that sits on both sides of the A Avenue roundabout at the intersection of Route 630 and Route 634. At that time, Chairman Hunter said, “This location appears to have the needed infrastructure to serve a new elementary school. Its location would strengthen an already solid partnership between Prince George County and Fort Lee.”
The only caveat with the Fort Lee location is the timetable before the county would actually be able to develop on the site if the transaction were approved by officials at the U.S Department of Defense as it isn’t expected to be finalized until the fourth quarter, or mid-to-late fall, of this year.
For the school division, waiting for that site could result in the school’s price tag rising, per information shared late last year by Moseley Architects.
If, according to their projections, the school division were to have a site for the school by next month, it’s estimated that design and other engineering steps could take place through the remainder of 2020 and eventually head to bid for contractors by February of 2021, with a projected completion date of January of 2023, resulting in a mid-school year move for students and teachers at Walton Elementary, with a final price tag of $32.9 million.
If a site isn’t attained until January of 2021, which is in line with estimations based on ongoing Fort Lee and Pentagon talks in regards to the A Avenue property, the project would then head to bid in January of 2022, with a completion date of September of 2023, roughly nine months later and carrying an additional $2.1 million price tag, raising the final total of the school to $35 million, with Westmoreland explaining that increase is tied to an inflation projection of approximately six percent.
At one time, Walton Elementary’s current location on Courthouse Road near U.S. Route 460 was pitched as a potential site for a new school but, the idea didn’t carry support from supervisors. (Michael Campbell)
When asked about what the school board’s decision to select Middle Road means for the pursuit of the A Avenue property, Chairman Johnson said those discussions have “all been done at the board of supervisors level, with [the school board] getting information from that,” deferring to supervisors on what’s next for the potential Fort Lee transaction.
While he was unable to comment on that particulars of the county’s efforts to receive land from Fort Lee, Johnson did say that land could be of benefit to the school division with regards to Beazley Elementary’s eventual replacement.
“We do need two schools and that would still be a viable site,” he said. “We have always needed two elementary schools so, I don’t think the action we took by wanting to move forward with the school now would prevent any discussion or decision on a possible site for another school but, that is not really for me to say and I can’t say the will of our board on that at this time.”
Calls to both Chairman Donald Hunter and Vice-Chair Alan Carmichael were not returned for their thoughts on the school board’s decision and if the county intends to continue to pursue acquiring land from Fort Lee and the DOD.
In an interview, County Administrator Percy Ashcraft said he had communicated with Fort Lee officials last week about the school board’s actions and reminded them of the board’s actions in September of 2018, supporting the construction of a school on Middle Road.
“I told them that there is a good possibility because it was going to take such a long time for the Fort Lee property to be approved, that the sense of urgency to get this project started had stepped up a bit and it was possible that the first school would go to Middle Road,” he shared. “The second school, sometime down the road, whenever that may be, the Fort Lee property would still be under consideration,” the county administrator continued, noting a few questions do remain for the board of supervisors.
“The location might not be in question now since we are on record as supporting that but, the size of the school and the overall cost of the school are still two factors I think our board wants to weigh in on,” he said.
According to Johnson and Pennycuff, along with a work session presentation this week during the board of supervisors meeting, the school division plans to ask county leaders to “reaffirm” their September 2018 vote that recommended Middle Road as the site for a new school and to appropriate funds for the construction of the new 850-student school.
Copyright 2020 by Womack Publishing
Send Us Your News Tips