Facilities committee recommends $71 million fix for Lancaster Schools

Lancaster High School

KILMARNOCK—Replacing Lancaster’s schools could cost an estimated $71 million according to an ad hoc school facilities committee that has been addressing the issue for 18-months.

Reporting to the school board on April 6, committee chairman Jimmie Carter, Bob Moje of VMDO Architects in Charlottesville, and committee member George Bott recommended the county build a new high school and middle school and renovate the existing middle school facility for elementary classes.

Bott said the county would have to raise the real estate tax rate by three cents to implement the recommendations. He suggested the county start with a one-cent tax rate increase this year. Bott also said the restructuring of school funding will allow the schools to put 27% down on a loan.

“If you’re going to change your schools, why not think about it proactively and get ahead of the curve and look at how you can maximize the benefits down the road for your school system and community,” said Moje.

If the county builds three separate schools, the primary school, pre-kindergarten to grade 5, would cost an estimated $30.93 million, the middle school, grades 6 to 8, would cost an estimated $18.81 million, and the high school, grades 9-12, would cost $32.12 million, totaling $81.86 million.

Carter previously said, “We think there are functional savings to be had if we had the schools combined and close together, especially with auditoriums and kitchens. There is a long term benefit for consolidating the schools.”

Combining the middle and high schools is estimated at $44.28 million. To convert the existing middle school to an elementary school is estimated at $26.55 million, for a total estimate of $70.83 million. The estimates do not include the purchase of property, future maintenance and bus facilities.

“When you look at school costs, it’s not just what it costs to build the school. Most of the costs occur over the life of the school, so you have the cost to build and the cost to operate,” said Carter.

The committee recommends the county and school board create a centralized campus with access to Kilmarnock’s central water and sewer, he said.

The committee also recommends the schools be designed as lifelong learning and fitness resources for all citizens with capabilities for future technologies.

“The committee feels that we should be aspirational and that it makes sense for the taxpayers of Lancaster County to build a new integrated high school and middle school and renovate the existing middle school into an elementary school. When we run the numbers, we think that this is the best bang for the buck and we think that the cost savings over time warrant that and that is what we propose based on the findings and research we have done over the past year-and-a-half,” said Carter.

Moje explained a variety of cost factors in building new schools. He said the current estimate assumes a 13% growth of student body if new schools are built, the cost of solar panels required to include sustainable technologies such as net-zero energy to save on utility costs to directly benefit education, and a pre-K program for new construction/renovation of the LCPS Annex that would accommodate seven classrooms for up to 126 students.

Based on square footage recommendations from the Virginia Department of Education, if the county renovates the current schools, extra square footage would be needed, said Moje.

If the county only wants to renovate the current schools, estimates would be $13.4 million for the primary school, $14.8 million for the middle school and $16.0 million for the high school.

“If you fix part of [the schools], you would have another set of issues shortly thereafter,” said Moje. “Renovating would keep you where you already are and to some extent go backwards…. Renovations do not make sense for you,” he said.

Moje said extensive renovations often approach or equal costs of new construction, with the added complication of working around existing school operations.

“Aim for the highest that you can imagine and dare to try to achieve something really good,” he said.

Describing the work of the committee, Carter said, “We developed a mission statement that said that our mission was to assist the school board and ultimately the board of supervisors with creating a functional and financially responsible plan for new schools.”

“We have the most outdated schools within the region, most of the counties have already gone through this process,” he said.

Carter said that if the county does not have good schools, it hurts the economic growth of the community.

“Studies show that schools equal an economic development catalyst,” said Moje.

“We know that building schools is a once in a lifetime event,” said Carter.

Discussion has been focused on two possible sites in the Kilmarnock area. One is off Harris Road across from the Northern Neck Family YMCA and the other extends from the current middle school towards James B. Jones Memorial Highway.

“We have reason to believe that there are good sites and we have other sites,” said Carter.

He also recommended that another committee be formed to consider site location to include Kilmarnock’s zoning and planning administrator Marshall Sebra, Welby Saunders, David Jones and Ben Burton, an engineer with Bay Design.

“The county has to buy land that will accommodate all future uses [for the schools],” said Carter.

“One thing I am for is the students and the people of this county. I love this county,” said committee member Charlie Costello. “If we don’t have good schools to raise our students up to be the very best, we will have nothing. They are the key to everything from now on,” he added.

“I’ve been a yes person from the beginning,” said committee member Susan Pittman. “It is so logical to do this and no matter what part of the county you live in, no matter what stage of life you are in, this is important as well as so far past the need stage.

“Where we are at today is just hoping that you can take the work that we have done and move forward with it and present it to the supervisors,” she said.

“No one else is going to have the guts that you all have to push this forward and I hope you have the guts because it is worthwhile, it’s worthwhile for today, it’s worthwhile tomorrow. And I think that a big thing is that as a county, we cannot afford not to do this,” said Pittman.

“This is a must and it is something that will not be regretted,” said committee member Edna Davenport.

“From the students’ perspective, they perceive a lack of investment from the board of supervisors or from this county in their school system. They feel as though they are on the back burner because of the retirement community,” said committee member Saunders. “I’m excited because I think that with this committee, with the leadership of the school board and the board of supervisors, there is a push [to build schools].”

“The students want this, the working class wants this and I think the retirees want this,” he said.

“From the board of supervisors’ standpoint, from one member that will be voting on this, I have always said that we have to think about the future of our county, not just looking out today but 20 to 30 years from now because we are building schools for our kids and grandkids,” said committee member and county supervisor Jason Bellows.

“We are laggers in this county for a lot of reasons but in this case I think it puts us in a great position because we are last to the table but being last to the table means we get to do something special and something different that is different from anyone else and makes us stand out for when we do that. When I do get to vote on something and spend taxpayers’ money, I vote for the best investment, not the cheapest. I want to do it right the first time,”  said Bellows.

“Let’s do this process right from the start, let’s invest in our future, and let’s take the work that this committee has done and continue moving this county forward,” he said.

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