By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 8, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
School board chair says location is ‘different’ from past sites discussed
PRINCE GEORGE – Next month will mark two years since a thought group of school leaders and other community members with Prince George County Public Schools’ core committee presented their report detailing the need to replace two of the school division’s oldest schools with new facilities.
While much of 2018 into early 2019 was spent largely debating where the first of the two new schools would be built, according to School Board Chairman Robert Cox, Jr. that stalemate has been broken as both boards seem to be making headway in agreeing on a new location following recent meetings between the school board and board of supervisors’ leaders.
In an interview, he remarked that the project remains in “a holding pattern,” Cox said they have “had good conversations” with board of supervisors chair Donald Hunter and vice-chair Floyd Brown, Jr. after having a series of meetings of late on the school development project, with Cox noting it was the county who bought this new property to the attention of school board reps.
“About a couple months ago, we had a chairman-vice-chairman meeting with Mr. Hunter, Mr. Brown, Mr. Stevenson and myself, and they brought us a piece of land that was of interest to them and they shared it with us,” he explained. “Then we had some more discussions on it and we took it back to my board and, my board, by unanimous consensus, agreed to the piece of land.”
“We sent it over the Board of Supervisors to let them know we were interested in the piece of land so, where we are now is, there are a few more things that have to be done, a few more T’s have to be crossed and I’s have to be dotted before they are ready to release the location,” he stressed.
Throughout 2018, a trio of parcels dominated the conversation between the school board and board of supervisors as they worked to settle on a site for a new 700-plus-student school – Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass, behind the current Walton Elementary School, which would’ve seen the old school demolished and converted into a parking lot upon completion, and a large parcel along Route 156 known as the Yancey tract.
As the now-completed school year got underway in the fall of last year, supervisors put their support behind the Middle Road site, calling it the best option for a new school in the county, no matter which student population group studies inside, be it Walton or Beazley. For the school board, while they agreed Middle Road was a good site for a school – especially a new Beazley Elementary, it was their position, and remains as such, that Walton is in need of replacement first and that whatever school is built would replace Walton, calling Middle Road an unfit location for that school due to commute times and its distance from much of the school’s population.
With the Yancey property being rejected by supervisor for a new school midway through 2018, the school board, along with teachers and parents at Walton supported building the school behind the current Walton building, keeping the building open during construction and demolishing it once the new school is ready to be opened and converting the space into parking for the facility.
In an interview, Cox said he couldn’t disclose the location that was presented to the school board by the board of supervisors but, he did confirm that “it is a different location” than the ones that have been presented over the past year, such as Yancey, Middle Road, or the current site of Walton Elementary School along Courthouse Road.
Speaking to the location, all Cox would offer for comment was that, “It is an area that will be an advantage to both sides,” remarking, “It will be an advantage to both boards.”
“Anytime you are dealing with land, you have to be careful before we let the information out,” he remarked.
The adopted budget for the current fiscal year features no funding for a new elementary school after the FY2019 budget had proposed a five-cent real estate tax rate increase to cover roughly $30 million to build the new school. That tax rate hike was delayed at the request of the school board and County Administrator Percy Ashcraft did not include funding for a new school in his FY2020 budget, even though supervisors funded the school division for the year based on a modified memorandum of understanding that allows for the proceeds generated through tax increases for school capital and public safety related projects to be exempt from the MOU, which requires roughly 46 cents of every dollar in tax revenue from several streams be used as part of the county’s local funding to the schools.
2019 has been relatively quiet on the new school front in the public eye but, for Cox, recent meetings between the two boards have offered some promising signs.
“This has done a good deal for us and now we can see some movement so, we are not sitting dead-center, we have some movement off of it,” he remarked. “I have not talked to all of the board members on the other side but, in dealing with Mr. Brown and Mr. Hunter, I think that [the board of supervisors] is in the same general motion that everything will be moving forward, it is just a matter of once the land is confirmed, then we will start moving along even quicker.”
“It has been very nice sitting down with those two in these meetings and discussing things and bringing things back to our boards. It is a positive movement,” Cox continued. “We broke the logjam and we have some things moving in the right direction and I applaud those gentlemen for talking to us.”
One of the big questions that remain is what the final cost of the school will be and how will it be paid for as, when the county’s financial contractors reviewed the fiscal impact of the project in 2018, the school was estimated to cost roughly $30 million. Over the course of that year, the cost slowly rose to nearly $33 million and, what would’ve been a five-cent real estate tax increase during last year’s budget discussions increased to roughly eight cents.
When asked, Cox said the project’s cost, as of this point, remains in a “holding pattern.”
“We are in a holding pattern because some people don’t realize that land has a lot to do with the cost because, if you have to go in and do a lot of mitigation of shrink-swell [soil] or wetlands, that escalates cost,” he detailed. “Right now, I think, where we are looking at, there will be very little associated costs. So we have been looking at some different options. We invited the board of supervisors to a meeting we had where Ballard came in to talk about public-private partnerships and different ways to approach the construction of a school.”
These public-private partnerships can help communities try to bridge the financial gap of funding large capital projects in the face of flat or declining revenue. Earlier this year, the school board had an organization come in and detail to financial advantages of PPP as part of a fact-finding mission the school board was undertaking as it sought solutions to funding at least one school but, possibly two schools.
“We wanted to see more about the financing part but also, multiple building scenarios and how the pricing can come down if you build multiple buildings,” Cox explained. “Again, we are looking to build a Beazley and a Walton so we want to look at the options and see if it would be an advantage to the county to look at doing both of the schools at the same time as opposed to one now, and another in 10 to 12 years.”
He added, “You have to stop and think about the way things are going up, if you wait ten years to build another school, you are probably talking another $7 to $10 million on top of the price tag you are paying now. So that is what we were looking at in the same room as [supervisors] because we are not trying to hide information from them, we want to share what we are looking at because, ultimately, it is going to be a decision they make, as far as purse strings but that we have to make when it comes to building and we want to be there together so we are doing what is best.”
A point brought up by county leaders and residents alike is what is going to happen to the current Walton Elementary School as, even if construction began this week, students would remain at the over five-decade old building until the new school is completed. Given the building’s mold and air quality issues during the winter and recent “slight elevation” in mold spore levels at the end of the school year, Cox said they have and will continue to maintain the building until it’s finished being used.
“We will definitely be looking at things to maintain the building going forward until the day comes that it closes,” he said. “We are not going to just sit, be idle, and do nothing to it,” adding, regarding the moisture issues at Walton, crews are going through and replacing the duct work on the school’s roof, which they believe is a contributing factor to air quality issues at Walton.
“It will be maintained and if we find issues with stuff that has to be corrected or re-done, we will do it. We are not going to jeopardize anyone’s safety and, just like with the mold issue, we went out and remediated everything. The building was tested and we continue to test it monthly to make sure that we don’t have anything going.”
As for the new site, it is unknown when the new site will be revealed to the public or when deeper discussions about the new school will be held during either board’s meetings.