Supervisors respond to SB comments after new school presentation

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 22, 2019 | 12:42 p.m. 

Editor’s Note: Since our deadline Sunday evening, it has been announced that a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and School Board is scheduled for Thursday, October 24, 2019 at Prince George High School’s Commons at 6 p.m. to discuss Walton Elementary School. The story has been updated to reflect this new information. 

PRINCE GEORGE – Prince George Board of Supervisors leadership shared their thoughts on comments raised by members of the county school board during their monthly meeting last week where, among other claims, some school board members said the county has outright refused to hold joint meetings of both governing bodies to try and help move the plans for a new county elementary school and other projects forward.

Last week, the county school board and Prince George County Public Schools jointly presented new data and financial runs on plans to build a new elementary school that will likely serve as a replacement to Walton Elementary and, during their meeting, several members opened up about their concerns regarding communication and other aspects of their interactions with the county and the board of supervisors.

During the board member comments period, longtime and outgoing school board member Kevin Foster said he had become “very frustrated, angry, and embarrassed by the lack of respect shown to this school board by our currently seated board of supervisors members” and “the lack of respect shown to former superintendent [Renee] Williams and the run around given to our current superintendent [Dr. Lisa Penncuff] is downright absurd.” Those comments dovetailed into claims that both current and past school division leaders and the school board itself “have repeatedly asked for meetings with the board of supervisors to discuss a variety of topics,” including carryover funding requests, health insurance, and school construction, among others, but have been “repeatedly shunned and denied,” reportedly being told by county supervisors that the school board “is just looking grandstand them.”

“The fact is, we need to intelligently share with them the facts and truths of several issues that affect the county as a whole,” Foster remarked. He added that discussion of the county providing funding for the design phase of a new elementary school had been added to the agenda of the board of supervisors’ work session on October 22, but Foster continued, “Do you see a pattern here? They absolutely refuse to meet with the school board in an open session. They meet with the chair and vice-chair but the productivity that results from those meetings is limited at best.”

In an interview, Prince George Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Floyd Brown, Jr. said there have been “several requests to have a joint meeting on several different topics” and the decision to not have those meetings isn’t the result of any one board member.

“There has not been a majority of the board that wants to sit down in an open meeting and discuss certain things just because, to me, the way things went [last Monday], I don’t think the meeting would be productive,” he remarked. “So, there is no need for us to be in front of the public and to be disagreeable and not be on the same page.”

The vice-chair continued, “Yes, there have been several requests that have been made but, you have to understand, that is all that can be. It is a request to the board. The board decides whether or not if they want to meet as a group, or even if they want just the chairman and the vice-chairman to go and meet. That is something we take as a directive from the board.”

Brown added, when asked about Foster’s comment of being told by supervisors “grandstanding” by the school board is a reason why there haven’t been joint meetings of the boards, “It is not about anybody grandstanding. I just don’t know how we would be able to talk productively.”

“You can’t have a meeting like what happened [last Monday] and people stand up there and call us ‘scumbags’ and call us names outside of our true names and then think that you can sit down and have a productive conversation.”

During that meeting last week, school board member Lewis Stevenson remarked, in speaking about signs being posted around the county that read, “Build Schools, Not Firehouses” and that some of those signs had been stolen, “I hope people are taking them home because they like them, not that they are lowlife scumbags who can’t engage in an intelligent discussion. I hope they are saving them for a good purpose,” before concluding his remarks.

“When you want to sit down and talk, there’s got to be room for negotiation,” Brown remarked. “But, if you come to me and say, ‘I want to talk and this is the only option we will consider,’ that doesn’t lead to open and honest dialogue. But, it’s not about somebody grandstanding, it’s really not and I have said to them before that they are giving us more credit than we deserve. We really don’t have time to be trying to do anything underhanded or anything that creates a lot of negative energy. It doesn’t help anybody.”

UPDATE: Monday, the school division announced there will be a joint meeting of the school board and board of supervisors on Thursday, October 24 in Prince George High School’s commons at 6 p.m. to discuss Walton Elementary School.

Last week, the school board also questioned if, now that the outstanding debt on J.E.J. Moore Middle School has been paid off, are funds that were used to pay for the debt service toward the school still being collected from taxpayers and if that could be used to offset the need to significantly raise taxes to pay for the new elementary school’s construction. Leading up to the adoption of the 2019 fiscal year budget, the county had budgeted in a five-cent real estate tax increase to help provide financing for the project but, weeks before the budget was adopted, School Board Chairman Robert Cox, Jr. told county leaders that increase wouldn’t be needed as significant spending would not occur during that year. The FY2020 budget did not see a tax increase proposed and was adopted without such an increase.

In an interview, Deputy County Administrator Betsy Drewry explained that the county updates its debt portfolio annually as part of their capital improvement plan process and, “If that debt fell off, we are likely paying other debt service, or new debt service with what was originally or formerly earmarked for the J.E.J. Moore [Middle] debt payment.”

“We have embarked on a whole host of capital projects, the largest of which is the public safety radio system, which exceeds $14.1 million,” she continued. “So I can’t specifically state which project that former debt service is being used for but, when debt falls off, it gives the county an opportunity to issue debt for new projects, so it was not set aside specifically for a new elementary school.”

Drewry added it is too early to tell what the real estate tax impacts of the proposed elementary school will be and they won’t be able to get updated data in that regard from their financial adviser Davenport until after the county completes its closing on its latest debt issuance as part of the county’s fall borrowing, noting that previous real estate tax impact data shown in recent years is now out of date.

“Until we can close on that debt and the board needs an opportunity to evaluate the entire county’s needs as far as schools versus other projects that the county may have as well and, the schools made a number of requests for capital projects in this most recent cycle, in addition to the new elementary school,” such as additional trailers, to technology infrastructure, to buses.

“In addition to the elementary school, there are wide county needs for capital projects and purchases,” Drewry said. “Until we have an opportunity to do our bond issuance and close on that so that we know what our real debt payment is on that debt that hasn’t closed yet, I can’t provide an updated [real estate tax rate] impact.”

At last week’s meeting, Stevenson was among the school board members who said they had been told by supervisors that the county “holds the purse strings” and because of that, the county is more qualified to dictate where the school should be located, going as far as to say that the county has directed Fort Lee, who has expressed interest in some form of land transaction with Prince George near the A Avenue gate for the development of a new school on the site, to only interact with the county itself as part of this process.

When asked, Vice-Chair Brown said that was “untrue.”

“The real deal is the county controls the acquisition of the land,” he said. “That is all that we control. Basically, we deal with Fort Lee on acquiring the property. Once we acquire the property, then we will give, deed, or whatever is the right process that it then goes under the name of the school division. That is the only thing that we are in control of and that has been stated many times between [County Administrator Percy] Ashcraft and Dr. Pennycuff as to who has what roles.”

He continued, “Yes, we do ultimately control the money, allocating the money not just for a school, but we also control the allocation of money for their budget. That is by law. When we ask tough questions, it is only so we can understand some type of reasoning for the request for money and I think we have done a good job of allocating money they have been requesting over the last six or seven months.”

“As far as what the school looks like, how big it is, whether it is on the left or the right-side of the street, that is all the school division’s decision. The only thing they have to ask us for is the money,” he remarked.

In regards to location, which has been a point of conversation for both boards since 2018, the idea was floated by school board members that the Yancey property along Route 156 should be considered for the development of this school, with both Stevenson, Foster and Cox touting it as the best option. In 2018, supervisors rejected the proposal to have the county-owned site developed for a new school and since that time, it has been eyed as a site for the county’s first wastewater treatment plant.

Earlier this month following the Fort Lee land pursuit announcement by the county, Cox remarked that the Fort Lee location had elements his board liked, saying, “What we like about it is that [it has] water and sewer and the fact that it is a convenient site in terms of traffic so we are very excited about and Fort Lee is excited about being able to be a good neighbor there so this just continues our partnership with Fort Lee and the schools.”

The school board chair continued, “It opens up so many options for us to work with Fort Lee. Fort Lee was excited when they came to us about forming a partnership because Fort Lee has always been a partner to us.”

When asked about the reemergence of the Yancey property as a possible site for the school, Vice-Chairman Brown said that never came up during the chair-vice-chair meetings between the two boards as a secondary option.

“None of the sites that were turned down have been discussed as a backup plan to Fort Lee,” he said. “This is, again, something new because if, for example, we wanted to build on Yancey, why would we let Fort Lee go out and spend $1 million to get this other property ready? Both sides have given Fort Lee the green light to keep moving forward so, this is now a curveball that was thrown out [last Monday].”

As of this report, the county is expected to have heard from Superintendent Pennycuff in regards to a million-dollar request for funding of the design phase of the new elementary school during a work session at the Oct. 22 board of supervisors meeting. Additionally, there will be a joint meeting of the school board and board of supervisors on Thursday, October 24 in Prince George High School’s commons at 6 p.m. to discuss Walton Elementary School.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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