Supervisors respond after plans to use Walton after new school opens revealed

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 29, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

PRINCE GEORGE – As the board of supervisors and school board remain on opposite sides of where one of two new elementary schools should be built in the county, debate about the future of one of those schools and its use after a new school opens has begun after possible plans for its future were revealed.

In September, the Prince George Board of Supervisors voted to recommend the first of possibly two new elementary schools be built on a 75-acre piece of county property along Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass. The decision comes after the board of supervisors rejected a proposal to build the school on the Yancey property along Quaker Road and Route 156 and a concept that would a new school be built at the current home of Walton Elementary School.

Through the school division’s core committee report in August of 2017, it was revealed both Walton and nearby Beazley Elementary Schools are in need of replacement, with citing safety, security and the overall age of the buildings as primary reasons for their replacement, with Walton being the school in most need of a new facility.

In an interview last month, following supervisors’ vote to recommend Middle Road for the construction of a new school, Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox said the new Walton Elementary School “won’t be built” on Middle Road, pointing to increased travel times and the fact that the site is well outside of Walton’s attendance zones, which stretch to the Richard Bland College area of the county.

The school board would later vote 3-2 to reject the county’s recommendation of the Middle Road site before presenting the current Walton Elementary School site as an option to supervisors for the new school’s home.

In that same September interview, Cox explained, even after a replacement Walton is constructed, wherever it ends up in the county, the old Walton Elementary School could be repurposed for other uses by the school division, this as the county has identified the site as a prime commercial location.

“If we don’t build back on that site, we do have uses for that building,” Cox remarked. “That building isn’t just going to go away.”

A memo from the county to supervisors showed the neighboring property to Walton where Tractor Supply Company is located “sold on February 25, 2013, for $135,000/acre,” with the memo going further stating, “Based on this transaction, the current 16-acre Walton Elementary School would have an estimated market value of at least $2.16 million.”

“After evaluating opportunity costs – placing the property back on the tax rolls, receiving future tax payments and providing an initial sale amount to the community outweighs the decision to keep this property as an elementary school when alternative locations are available,” the memo from Deputy County Administrator Jeff Stoke said, something Cox disagreed with. 

“We have [the] deed to that building and we don’t have to surrender that deed until we no longer have [a] use for that building,” Cox remarked. “And there are things we can do to that building,” noting an idea to bring the Prince George Education Center from behind J.E.J Moore Middle School to the old Walton Elementary building.

If that doesn’t come to fruition, Cox said the site could also be used for storage, something he explained the school division is in need of with only one warehouse by the county football field.

Speaking for himself, Cox said of the moving the Prince George Education Center to the old Walton building, “I think it would be a perfect place for it.”

After last week’s meeting, Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Alan Carmichael responded to those comments, questioning why the school board wouldn’t want to give up the property if its sale could benefit taxpayers as the new school and an estimated $32.1 million price tag looms.

“Anytime we can give a new elementary school to the kids of this county, why not take advantage of using the business property to offset the cost of the school by any revenue that could be generated by the sale of that property,” Carmichael asked. 

Carmichael also spoke to comments from Cox where, again, speaking for himself, the school board chairman said he would be interested in a deed swap with the county where the school board would get the Yancey property and the county would get the Walton property. As of August, the county has begun eyeing the Yancey property for a possible wastewater treatment facility. 

Carmichael also spoke to Cox’s idea to have the Prince George Education Center move into the building after the new Walton opens, should the school not be built on that site. 

“If the building is in need of replacement, then why is it safe enough to put at-risk kids in it,” he remarked. “If it is not safe enough, per their discussion, to put regular students in that school, then what makes them different from at-risk students. If the building, in the future, may not be fit for one group, then it shouldn’t be fit for two.”

In 2017, during the initial presentation by the Prince George Schools Core Committee, William Young, the head of the group spoke to supervisors and said both Walton and Beazley were “beyond their useful life,” a conclusion that was drawn following several meetings and on-site walkthroughs of that and other school buildings. 

“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.

In addition, during that presentation, then-school board chairman Kevin Foster said safety at an open-campus school like Walton and Beazley is a concern.

“Safety at open-campus schools is problematic,” Foster said in 2017. “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.”

According to Carmichael, based on his interactions with the school board, it was communicated to him that the current home of Walton Elementary “was not a safe environment for a school,” citing the school’s proximity to Interstates 85, 95, and 295, along with U.S. Route 460 as a primary factor.

“Regardless of if you have a closed campus or an open-style campus, it can be very easy for a child to get lost in the mix and get on the interstate and create a risk for kids in that area,” he said. 

“So if you take the Walton School,” Carmichael continued, “first, it was unsafe, then it wasn’t set up for the students but yet, it’s good enough for the at-risk students or to hold up a business area in order to use it for storage because they are not done with the building yet.”

“It’s not the five-member board they are giving the thing to, it’s the citizens of the county,” he added. “You should be wanting to make that proposal, appreciate the brand-new school for the elementary school kids.”

For Carmichael, he believes the sale of the property would be a net gain for the county and its taxpayers, and the business community as they work to face a multi-million price tag for two schools and a renovation of the high school.

“If we could sell this land as a business-zoned area,” he said, “it can bring economic development and revenue into Prince George County. That sale wouldn’t go into our contingency fund, it would go straight to offset the cost of the school. I know this is going to be hard on the taxpayers, but if we can sell this land, we can go do the renovation, build the new school and do the demolition of the old building and let’s sell what we can sell to the businesses.”

As of this report published in the October 17 edition of The Prince George Journal, neither side has moved from their proposals, with the school board remaining committed to building the new school on the current home of Walton Elementary, and the county standing by its proposal of Middle Road for the new school.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: New Elementary Schools in Prince George County

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