While optimistic on new school progress, concerns linger for school board’s Cox

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 17, 2019 | 12:30 p.m. 

Cox ‘disappointed’ school board wasn’t part of last week’s site announcement

PRINCE GEORGE – Even though progress has been made in terms of the consensus on a possible location for a proposed elementary school in the county, the county’s school board chairman said he still has some concerns regarding the future of the project and the recent announcement of the location being scouted by the county.

In an interview last week, Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox, Jr. shared his thoughts following the public reveal of the county’s engagement with Fort Lee in regards to a possible transaction of land from the military installation to Prince George for the construction of a new school, with the property slated to be in the general area of the A Avenue roundabout at the intersection of Route 630 and 634 near the A Avenue gate of Fort Lee.

That information was shared via a prepared statement delivered by Prince George Supervisors Chairman Donald Hunter, where he said they and the base project the transaction to be approved toward the latter portions of next year and Fort Lee leaders were “comfortable” the process would go smoothly, noting discussions on the topic have been active between the county, school board, and military base for the last several months.

“We heard about this location some time ago and the chairs and vice-chairs met and talked about this location and they seemed to be very encouraged about that location because of where it was, it is convenient to Fort Lee so, some of their population would be there, to be determined by the schools, of course, not by us,” he remarked. “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.”

Speaking with The Prince George Journal last week following the county’s announcement, Cox detailed why the school board and school division leaders supported the location, with its proximity to the base and the Walton population being prevailing reasons.

“The advantage to [the location] is it is close to Fort Lee so [it may] reduce transportation costs and time for the Walton school to be right there,” he remarked. “Even though Walton is not that much further up the road but, you can run kids out of the gate. It may, this is just me thinking, [let us] see a point that Fort Lee would be willing to transport their own kids off-post to that school. It is always an option if we get into another transportation crisis that we have been in with buses, we could always reach out to Fort Lee and say, ‘Hey, could you help us out for awhile? You have buses and trained drivers. Could you help transport kids to that school for us for the interim until we get some drivers trained?’”

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.”

While he was openly optimistic about the possibility of locating the new school that would likely be Walton Elementary School’s replacement near the base, Cox said he was “disappointed” in how the revelation of the county’s pursuit of the Fort Lee site was handled last Tuesday evening.

“The whole thing was, and has been since then, we need to do this together to show the people that we are working together,” the school board chairman remarked. “It would have been nice if they would’ve called us [last Tuesday]. We didn’t have to be involved in the meeting but we could’ve been invited to the meeting. It would have been nice to be sitting in the audience when that statement was read then, that way, we could have all congratulated each other and show we have got this taken care of and it’s in the books now but, we weren’t invited to it.”

According to Cox, during a chair-vice-chairman meeting between the two boards “about a month ago,” they were asked by supervisors to provide the information regarding the architectural and engineering costs for the new school to the county in order to be added to the agenda, with Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff slated to deliver a presentation on the subject last week, but they were informed they would not be the agenda for last week’s meeting and instead moved to the October 22 meeting.

“We were supposed to have been on [last Tuesday] for the request for the design phase money but we were summarily dismissed and said we did not need to be there,” the school board chairman asserted.

When asked, Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, who prepares the agenda at the direction of county representatives, explained, “the board of supervisors has requested that prior to there being a presentation, Dr. Pennycuff send over” the details of the school division and school board’s request for funding of architectural and engineering costs for the new school “in writing so [supervisors] can process it a little bit better.”

“After they have received that and had a chance to review that individually, then they would decide and tell me to place it on an agenda and then I would communicate that to Dr. Pennycuff,” Ashcraft detailed, adding, “There was discussion two to three weeks ago” that the superintendent of schools was going to come before the county board during their work session in regards to this proposal for funding but during the board’s retreat in late September, supervisors “decided they would rather see it in writing, especially if it was a detailed report from the architect who is going to be providing numbers and information.”

“I communicated that to Dr. Pennycuff that the board would like to see that in writing first and then when it was time, we would let her know and it would be put on the agenda,” Ashcraft continued, adding that she was notified just over a week prior to the board of supervisors meeting and, as of late last week, he “has not been instructed by the to reach out to her because we have received anything in writing.”

As of press time, the agenda for the Oct. 22 board meeting had not been released as it is commonly disseminated to the public approximately seven days before the meeting date.

“If we got that information rather quickly, I would distribute that to the board members and they could tell me if they wanted her to come at the next meeting but that has not been directed to me to do that,” Ashcraft said last week.

Regarding the expected funding request from the school board, Chairman Hunter remarked after last week’s meeting that supervisors would be “inclined” provide it “as soon as they explain to us what they need in terms of preliminary [engineering].”

“We have to make sure we can justify the funding for them to go forward with their planning. Nothing is decided or set in stone but we are working well together and we are moving forward,” he continued. For Cox, he believes the funding request is clear.

“I don’t know what questions you need to ask,” he said. “We are asking for money for the design of a school. That should answer any questions, the money is for the design of the school.”

In June, Cox told The Prince George Journal his board and the county board had reached a consensus on a possible site for a new school but he declined to disclose the location, which was confirmed last week to be the site near the A Avenue gate of Fort Lee, saying at the time, “Anytime you are dealing with land, you have to be careful before we let the information out.”

Last week, Hunter said it was important for the county to “not let the cat out of the bag” as they and the military base engaged with the Department of the Army, being cautious about making any sorts of announcements should the proposal fall through in order to prevent implications of issues in the relationship between the county and Fort Lee. After last week’s announcement, Cox said he felt the public could have been made aware of the proposal sooner while noting the various guideposts that need to be reached as part of it.

“I can understand you do not announce land when you are buying private land because someone could swoop in and buy it from under you,” he said. “This is land that belongs to the government that they are going to lease to the county. There is no danger of anyone coming in and swooping in and taking it. So, why not go out and let everybody know that we have jointly agreed that this is a good spot for a school but we need everyone to understand that there are many hurdles that have to be cleared before we can have the go-ahead to do it.”

Cox continued, “It would depend on partially the county for money and the government for the land. So, that way, if something did fall through, nobody looks bad. We told you up-front that it may not work out but, we wanted you to know this is what we are working toward. There is no harm in saying we are working toward this, but understand it may not work out. That way, people would know months ago that these two boards are working together for the good of the county.”

He also noted the timeline for the approvals of the transaction around the fourth quarter of 2020 would result in the new school opening in roughly four years, keeping students at Walton Elementary, which has been deemed by school officials as at the end of its useful life.

The school division is expected to have presented a detailed proposal regarding the future of the elementary school project, including timetables and updated cost estimates during this past Monday’s school board meeting held at Prince George High School. A full report on that presentation will be shared in the Oct. 23 edition of The Prince George Journal.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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