Uncertainty remains after county recommends Middle Road for new school

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 19, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

School ‘won’t be built’ on Middle Road, says Chairman Cox

PRINCE GEORGE – A month after supervisors planned to give the school board their suggestion of where a new elementary school should be built, county leaders delivered their recommendation to school board leaders but, even with the county’s proposal of placing the school along Middle Road, uncertainty remains about if the school will actually be built at that site.

During their meeting last week, the Prince George Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a motion to recommend a 75-acre county-owned plot along Middle Road near New Jerusalem Baptist Church and the Interstate 295 overpass as the site for a new elementary school that would, based on a Prince George County Public Schools core committee report from 2017, be the home of Walton Elementary School, the school determined to be in greatest need of a replacement, followed by Beazley Elementary School. Their decision came a month after supervisors decided to delay their recommendation until September after receiving additional information from the school board following a work session earlier in the summer.

According to county documents, of the three options on the table among county-owned properties – Middle Road, the Buren property, which is near the current Beazley Elementary School along Courthouse Road, and the current home of Walton Elementary School near U.S. Route 460 – the Middle Road property is considered the cheapest in terms of site development costs, totaling $5.6 million.

That figure is identical to the data provided by the school division to the county in August prior to their decision to delay the selection of a recommended site for construction of a new elementary school. In both reports, Middle Road’s site development cost was the lowest, with the current Walton site being slightly more expensive at $5.9 million and the Buren property carrying the largest price tag at $6.1 million. 

When looking at all three sites, each of them carries similar costs for road improvements in their respective areas, $750,000, but there are some differences that make Middle Road the cheapest option. According to county and school division records, the Courthouse Road-Buren property would require $1 to $1.15 million in costs related to extending public water and sewer services. The Walton Elementary School site would not need such extensions, while the figures for Middle Road present slightly different numbers for public utility needs. 

Per county research, there is currently a 12-inch water main available that can be used to service the schools, but when it comes to sewer, the county states there is a “four-inch force main currently available” and “minor upgrades” to the nearby church’s pumps may be required as part of the project. With that, the county estimates that it would cost “$5,000 to use the existing force main,” noting it was “$645,000 less than the schools’ estimate” of $650,000 provided by the school division’s consultant, Moseley Architects. 

In addition, the Middle Road property “is proffered for a school location” and is “centralized to current and future housing development” with no disadvantages listed in the county’s analysis of the three locations.

(Source: Prince George County)

Leading up to last week’s vote, supervisors sought to clear the air on their position when it comes to the new school, reiterating that they are all in favor of building a new school but doing it in such a way that is fiscally cognisant of the long-term implications of such capital projects, particularly debt and impacts on the county’s real estate tax rate.

“We get it,” Supervisor Floyd Brown said, adding, “But, we have to be fiscally responsible to the residents to make sure we are spending their money wisely,” referring to the increasing cost of the school’s construction. 

According to documents from the school division that were provided to the county in August, the total cost of the new elementary school has risen from the initial projection provided earlier this year during the FY2019 budget building process of $29.5 million for a 750-student school. In paperwork provided to supervisors last month, the estimated cost of the school, based on it being built at the current Walton Elementary site, totals just over $32.1 million. In September, those numbers fluctuated between representatives with the Prince George School Board and county supervisors, with School Board Chairman Robert Cox remarking the current cost was in the area of $32.2 million, adding that the price is increasing “roughly one percent per month” and that the price applies to an “850-student school,” 100 students more than the original request earlier this year, and Prince George Supervisor Brown noting he and the board have been told the price is upwards of $35 million.

While Cox said in an earlier interview that the additional 100 students, which he said equates to roughly four more classrooms and would address overcrowding and the use of trailers at South Elementary, was “an adder” as part of the original estimate for the 750-student school, a formal request for an 850-person school has not been made before the board during a regular open meeting or work session.

For Brown, that increased cost and what that may mean for county taxpayers was of significant concern.

“We said we would support the building of a school and at that time, the cost was closer to $29.5 million,” he said. “And with that number, there was a five-cent [real estate] tax increase. The numbers have been creeping up, but everyone needs to sharpen their pencils to try and keep that cost around that number.”

“We talked about five cents,” Brown continued referring to the proposed real estate tax increase that was scrapped during the budget building process after it was revealed significant spending on the project wouldn’t occur during the current fiscal year. “I don’t want it to go to seven, nine, or ten cents.”

Chairman Alan Carmichael spoke to the year-long conversation had by both sides on the subject and saw Tuesday’s decision as a step in the right direction for the county’s children.

“There has been a lot of back and forth and it looked we were at odds, but at the of the day, there will be a new school that the kids coming up today will be able to enjoy regardless of where it is located,” he said prior to the unanimous vote. “We have looked at different options and the long-term debt it brings. I don’t think we will ever agree on every single item, but I commend the schools for fighting for the children and staff to bring them a new building with better technology for the future of our kids’ education.”

This plot of land along Middle Road has gained the support of supervisors in plans to build a new elementary school, but, according to School Board Chairman Robert Cox, the replacement to Walton Elementary “won’t be built” at the location.

Despite the positive tone of supervisors in the face of lingering concerns about costs and its fiscal implications, following the vote, School Board Chairman Cox was blunt in his thoughts on county’s recommendation to build the school on Middle Road.

“It won’t be built,” he remarked, suggesting supervisors “violated their authority” by recommending a site to the school board for the build the school on. “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.”

He added the Yancey Tract, a 175-acre piece of county-owned property along Quaker Road and Route 156 remains their preferred option despite it being rejected by the county in July and placing the new school at the current Walton site is their preferred alternative location while admitting Middle Road is the ideal location for Beazley Elementary School’s replacement whenever that school is constructed. 

“Moving [Walton Elementary School] over there is going to do one of two things,” Cox remarked. “We would have to re-district or we will be taking kids and bussing them deep into Beazley Elementary’s district from the Walton Elementary side of the county, which is crazy.”

“The Middle Road site is an ideal site for Beazley because it’s in the Beazley area,” he continued. “Walton’s area serves all the way to Richard Bland College so we would have to bus kids all the way to Middle Road and, if we try to redistrict, people are going to be raising hell because their child won’t get to go to a new school, which again, the Yancey Tract, it was situated just a little bit outside of the Walton and Harrison district, but we could utilize the building there to take some of the overload out of South Elementary to get rid of the trailers there, which would do the same thing at the existing Walton site and keep it in the area where transportation would be less than sixty minutes.”

It will be up to the Prince George School Board to decide if they will agree with supervisors’ recommendation of the Middle Road site. (Michael Campbell)

Even though last Tuesday’s motion by supervisors stated they would financially support the school’s construction if it was placed on Middle Road, the motion did not state which school, either Walton or Beazley, would be placed there, as that decision remains with the school board, along with site selection. As a result, some have questioned whether the county school board has looked at building Beazley’s replacement first instead of Walton, particularly after school leaders have said the Middle Road site is suitable for that school, in an effort to move this project forward.

When asked, Chairman Cox said it has been discussed but they plan to adhere to the core committee’s recommendations.

“We have talked about it but we are sticking with Walton needing to be done first due to the condition of the building,” he said, adding the school is in “more of a critical condition” than Beazley Elementary from an age and security perspective. 

The chairman went on to say, “What scares me and the other board members, if we build this new school, how long will it be until the next school is built. If we decide to go ahead and build Beazley, which is in better condition of the two, then we are stuck with Walton because we wouldn’t want to move the kids from Walton to old Beazley building. There are so many different layers and I would love to get back to the table and talk and share our concerns and maybe they will see what we are talking about.”

As of this report, no special sessions of either board have been scheduled. The Prince George School Board is expected to meet again on October 8.

Editor’s Note: As of this report’s publishing, no meeting of the school board had been scheduled. As of 9/21, the Prince George School Board is slated to meet on Monday, September 24 for a special meeting. According to their agenda, at 5:30 p.m., the board will meet in closed session to discuss “real property matters,” among other items. The board is expected to return to open session at 6:30 p.m.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: New Elementary Schools in Prince George County

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