Timeline of discussions regarding plans for new county schools

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 26, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

23 months have passed since 2017 core committee presentation

PRINCE GEORGE – Earlier this month, as supervisors digested information on public-private partnerships and discussed the viability of such a partnership to help pay for a new elementary school, the conversations held by county’s occurred nearly two years to the day when leaders heard their initial report on a proposal to replace aging school facilities.

Even though supervisors during their board meeting this month found the merits of the public-private partnerships to not truly be in the best interest of the county, with information presented by county staff demonstrating the financing option is typically aimed toward localities with lower bond ratings, the last few weeks have seen progress toward the development of the first of two new elementary schools as, according to school leaders, a location suitable in the eyes of both boards has found support.

With the possibility of a location that both the school board and board of supervisors may support, The Prince George Journal looks to provide a timeline of discussions between the two boards in public sessions and in interviews to recap where the project has come from since August of 2017.

August 2017 – The Prince George School Board’s core committee made its first presentation to the Prince George County Board of Supervisors. During that presentation, committee member William Young said, through their research, it was determined that both Walton and Beazley elementary schools were “beyond their useful life.”

“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 at the time, noting Walton’s age, having been built in 1960 while Beazley was constructed in 1964.

At that time, it was proposed that efforts be undertaken by the county to begin scouting county-owned and privately-held parcels of land that would be conducive for elementary schools and recommended that an architect be hired during the fall of 2017 “in order to meet a completion schedule for both new elementary schools by fall of 2020.”

The schools were proposed to be two, 750-person facilities, with then-board chairman Bill Robertson saying, through their research on the core committee, a school would cost roughly $25 million each. In addition, along with the schools, that committee proposed renovations to extend the life of Prince George High School, which dates back to the 1970s. That project would add a minimum of $30 million to the overall project’s price tag, with that price rising to $50 million if a technical wing and other improvements were also lumped.

The high school improvements have not been discussed publicly since the August 2017 proposal, with school division officials saying the replacement of the elementary schools currently serve as priority projects.

Feb 6, 2018 – During their first budget work session for the upcoming fiscal year, financial runs provided by the county’s monetary contractors found tax increases would be needed to raise funds for the construction of the schools. At a cost of roughly $30 million, a five-cent real estate tax increase was noted as being needed to cover the costs of one school, while constructing both would’ve resulted in 12-cent tax if the schools were funded at the same time, or an even higher tax increase had both schools had been financed, one in FY2019 and the second in FY2021.

Feb 27, 2018 – County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, as part of his proposed budget for FY2019 provided a five-cent real estate tax increase to help finance one of the two requested elementary schools. At that time, it was also proposed the county’s memorandum of understanding with the school division, which details what percentage of certain county revenue sources the school system is entitled to, be modified to allow for revenues received through tax increases earmarked for school capital projects to be exempt from the tenets of the MOU to allow for the true effect of the increase to occur.

Apr. 10, 2018 – During the board’s public hearing setting the tax rate, residents came out in support of the school division and the understanding of the need to modernize their facilities but, they felt taxpayers shouldn’t have to shoulder that burden and suggested cuts should be made internally within the county’s overall budget.

Additionally, School Board Chairman Robert Cox told supervisors during that meeting a tax increase would not be needed during the 2019 fiscal year, saying, while “they could build a school in 15 months,” the school system was going to take “a slower approach” using North Elementary School as a prototype for what the school could look like when completed.

May 8, 2018 – Supervisors approve the FY2019 budget without a five-cent tax increase to cover the cost of a new elementary school, with officials explaining the increase is not needed during that fiscal year as significant spending on the project would not occur during that financial year.

July 2018 – Supervisors turn down the Yancey property at the corner of East Quaker Road and Prince George Drive, which school board members said was their preferred location for an elementary school, given the property’s location and size, making it viable for that school, a high school replacement, and other assets. According to the county’s engineers at the time, bringing water and sewer infrastructure to the site would have totaled over $2 million.

School Board Chairman Cox said the board would work to develop an alternate location.

July 31, 2018 – During a supervisors retreat at the Central Wellness Center, leaders reiterated opposition to the Yancey property while also listing a nearly 100-acre piece of county-owned land along Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass and a site near the current Beazley Elementary School as viable locations.

At that retreat, School Board Chairman Cox, with Yancey no longer in consideration, suggested Walton Elementary School’s current location along Courthouse Road as a site for the new school, building the facility behind the current school and, upon completion, tearing down the old building to create the school’s parking lot. They did say additional land, roughly six acres, would need to be purchased, something supervisors said they were not in favor of doing at that time.

August 2018 – One year after the initial core committee presentation, the location and size of the elementary school were the focus for both boards. During the summer, the school board asked county leaders to consider two, 850-person schools, with the extra 100 students per school providing roughly four more classrooms, allowing for additional growth.

“We need to have that additional capacity at our schools that will allow us to do that and doing two, 850-student schools would give us a 200-student cushion to allow us to move people around and not have to bring trailers in and set them up outside,” Chairman Cox said at the time.

In addition, Cox said the property along Courthouse Road known as the Buren property could be used as a commercial site better than the current Walton Elementary School site, ruling it out as Walton’s future site.

September 2018 – Supervisors voted to financially support the construction of a new elementary school if the school is built along Middle Road. Following that vote, School Board Chairman Cox remarked that supervisors “violated their authority” by recommending a site for the school to be built on. He added, while Middle Road would be ideal for a new Beazley Elementary, it wasn’t suitable for Walton due to its location, likely requiring redistricting.

October 2018 – The School Board votes to reject supervisors’ proposal to build the new elementary school along Middle Road then, the following evening, formally present the current Walton property as their preferred location. In addition, Cox explained the school board may re-purpose Walton after the new school opens, such as using it for the Prince George Education Center or as a storage facility.

October 29, 2018 – During their fall retreat, supervisors received updated figures and tax rate impacts for the new school, now estimated to cost roughly $32 million to build. Financial analysts found the county would need to implement at least a seven-cent increase to cover the school’s costs. If supervisors wanted to cap the real estate tax increase at five cents, alternative funding would be needed to cover the shortfall.

November 2018 – A group of parents and teachers from Walton Elementary speak during public comments, voicing their support for a school to the built at the school’s current location.

February 2019 – Walton Elementary is closed for two days of deep cleaning after mold and other air pollutants are found at the school, prompting concerns from parents and calls for action by supervisors in working with the school board to get a new school built. After the cleaning, then-Assistant Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lisa Pennycuff said, “Trying to build a new school is a priority for us,” adding, “I think that we need to be sure we express that we are definitely working to take care of the buildings we have but Walton has been identified as a school that is at the end of its useful life.

March 2019 – Following County Administrator Ashcraft’s budget being designed without funding for a new school at the direction of supervisors, school division leaders remained hopeful that funding for the school’s early stages of construction can be provided through use of fund balance, with Dr. Pennycuff saying, “The school division is hopeful that the Board of Supervisors believes that the first year of this process can be initiated with funding from the County fund balance. This will allow Prince George County Public Schools to begin the construction process, and the board of supervisors could avoid a tax increase for the community related to this construction until the second year of the elementary school building process.”

May 2019 – The county’s FY2020 budget is adopted without tax increases or funding for a new elementary school.

Spring 2019 – School board leaders receive information from S.B. Ballard regarding Virginia Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act as fact-finding mission regarding paying for a new school continued.

June 2019 – School Board Chairman Robert Cox confirms the board of supervisors’ leadership – Donald Hunter and Floyd Brown, Jr – had presented their board’s leaders with a possible plot of land for a new school, but he was unable to disclose the site’s location, only saying it is not among the past locations previously discussed – Yancey property, current Walton ES, Middle Road, and the Buren site.

July 9, 2019 – Supervisors are presented information on the Virginia Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act by the county’s legal staff but, following a walkthrough of the pros and cons, leaders felt it was not in the county’s best interest to pursue this funding avenue.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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