by Madison White Franks
KILMARNOCK—Following discussion among members and a public hearing on April 18, the Lancaster school board was due to meet last night, April 26, to decide whether to accept or reject proposed recommendations from an ad hoc school facilities committee. The committee has recommended the county build new middle and high schools, while renovating the existing middle school to accommodate the elementary school.
School board chairman Bob Westbrook indicated topics for consideration this week would include a proposal to seek a one-cent tax increase to begin funding the school facilities, an application for a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Loan and a second request for proposals (RFP) to address the next step in the process.
School board member Bob Smart indicated he would rather renovate the middle and high school than build the two new schools and renovate the current middle school into an elementary school.
“In coming months the school board will issue a second RFP. I would like to think that school board members have kept open minds and that the selection process for the second RFP will be fair and open competition…the existing high school is fully paid off. I have contacted several architectural firms to ask about the feasibility of renovating our existing high school. I have learned that complete renovation costs run about 65% of new construction costs and that the finished product is a virtually new school,” said Smart.
“In the case of our high school, complete renovation might run 70% of new construction cost because of the requirement for construction of an auditorium and the addition of geothermal HVAC. But a savings of about $1 million would be realized by eliminating the need to acquire more land,” he said.
“Our existing middle school is 108,000 square feet and our existing high school is 85,000 square feet or a total of 193,000 square feet. The average new school constructed in Virginia last year was 102,828 square feet at a cost of $16 million. The average school was designed to accommodate 836 students at 123 square feet a student. Since the current enrollment for Lancaster County Public Schools is about 1,200 students and since the combined area of our existing high school and middle school is 193,000 square feet, the two schools could provide 175 square feet per student for our entire student body. This is 52 square feet per student more than the statewide average for new schools constructed in Virginia last year. Renovation of our existing high school and middle school clearly meets our need for space,” he said.
Smart mentioned the county administration had asked Davenport & Company to conduct a financial analysis on how the county might handle the existing debt plus the proposed school debt.
“The best scenario appears to be a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan. The terms are initial principal of $70 million carried at 3.375% interest with amortization period of 40 years…Davenport makes it clear that the ‘3-cent solution’…is not realistic,” he said.
“The population of Lancaster county is declining. It has declined 3.7% over the last six years. Our student enrollment has declined. Twenty years ago, our enrollment was over 1,500 and is now 1,100, a 27% decline. Our economy is struggling to produce jobs. Without jobs, young couples of child bearing age cannot afford to live here. Raising taxes places additional stress on businesses which may cause them to fail. This costs jobs.
“Higher taxes and fewer jobs will not attract more people to Lancaster County,” said Smart. “If people are not attracted here, homes will stay on the market longer and they may sell for less. This means falling property values and it means the tax rate must increase to satisfy debt obligations. The school board should not place the full burden on the board of supervisors to exercise necessary fiscal restraint.
“It may be that constructing a new school for three times the average of a new school in Virginia last year is a ‘bridge too far,’” he said.
“Over an 18-month process, there were multiple public hearings and public meetings with the facilities committee and the architectural firm that this board chose…there was an evolution of thought that occurred,” said Westbrook. “There were 20 members of the community, a broad spectrum of this community that began as this committee and they all came with different points of view. Over the course of the process to look at the options we have, they have come to a consensus and an agreement of what the best thing is for our students.”
Westbrook noted that Smart did not attend any of the public meetings. Smart said that he was invited to none of them. Westbrook told him that he was invited and it was his responsibility to be there as a school board member.
“In all good faith, I cannot believe that you would consider putting lipstick on the high school…there is no way that you can lift it to be a net-zero school. After all these people have spent hours and hours for 18-months that we are totally going to disregard this cross section of the community,” said member Joan Gravatt.
Member Kenya Moody said she was elected to represent the school board and the board of supervisors was elected to represent the finances.
“The board of supervisors chose to run for office for the burden of finances…I am not putting a burden on them, they chose that. Since I am a person who pays taxes in this community, I would never put a burden on myself or my family…I would never purposely vote to put a burden on them. I will also never put a burden on my children or my grandchildren. Everything that I do and say are for them…any decision that I make will be in good faith for this community, these children and for myself. Anything that I decide will be an informed decision” said Moody.
Smart noted that when the school board was reviewing RFPs to conduct the school facilities study, the vote was 3-2 for VMDO. The rest of the board firmly told Smart that the vote was 5-0.
“We are the ultimate one to make the decision,” said Smart.
Board member Audrey Thomasson said former superintendents have indicated the schools are old and need to be replaced.
“The committee that was just appointed and went through all of this for the last year-and-a-half was a vision of a new school board member and chairman. If it weren’t for Bob Westbrook we would not have had the great committee that was set up to be transparent, to be open and honest and we have shown every single step of this, every single penny that has been spent and I cannot say the same about the supervisors…we have been transparent and please do not accuse anyone of not being transparent and open minded. We appreciate the comments that people make whether they support us or if they don’t support it…we invite their opinions,” said Thomasson.
“You are proposing to update a school and spend millions of dollars, 70% of what it would cost to build a new school, on a septic system that will last 30 years, what are you going to do the next 30 years?…I don’t think we are out of line on the price…we are building net-zero schools…instead of spending $700,000 a year in utilities” she said.
At the hearing to solicit public opinion on the committee’s recommendation, 18 members of the public spoke in favor of the proposal.
“I feel that if we do not vote in a positive manner for the new schools, we are really going to be hindering our children to be successful individuals in their educational life and their future lives,” said Margaret Socey of the Lancaster County Virginia Education Foundation.
“I would be delighted to have my taxes raised in order to improve the education of our children,” said Katherine Keith.
Phillip Mumford of the Boys and Girls Club of Kilmarnock read a resolution that its board put together in support of building of new schools. “It is not only an investment in our children but also in our economy, prosperity, the community and our families…we believe that the Lancaster school facilities committee has prepared a plan that is visionary and practical and a win for us all,” he read.
“You are getting ready to put a bigger burden on the taxpayers of Lancaster County, that a lot of people can’t afford, to try to build two-and-a-half schools. I think you need to think in smaller steps than that…I am for it but I don’t think the county can afford it,” said Howard Kaiser.
“We have to do something with the school system…our children cannot continue to be sent to these schools and us stand around and do nothing,” said Mae Umphlett.
“You are going to pay now or pay later. I think we need to go ahead and do what is necessary to keep our children in a school that will be suitable for them to learn in the 21st century…a couple years ago, tax was lowered and now you need it…the tax man giveth and the tax man giveth away,” said Lloyd Hill.
“New schools are worth it…why not build them all,” said Sandy Zeiler.
“Moving forward with new schools is an investment in our students, an investment in the quality of their education…an investment in our community and an investment in our quality of life,” said Tom Coye.