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Little more than a year ago, Stafford County's School Board members approved a plan for a new Stafford High School. There wasn't much public reaction.
But as the board has gotten closer to putting the project out to bid, constituents have begun to speak up. And many are not happy.
JROTC students at Stafford High complained that their outbuilding was scheduled for demolition. Student athletes raised a cry because several fields would be unusable during the construction project, which is expected to take two years.
Automotive students began showing up at meetings to protest the lack of a mechanic training program in the new school.
And recently, Stafford Supervisor Paul Milde proposed holding a referendum on the $66.1 million project, to let voters decide the project's fate. Supervisors plan to take up that issue at their Nov. 20 meeting.
While School Board members aren't dismissive of the concerns, most members continue to say that the school project, long in the works, needs to move forward.
"We are not going to change the game plan at this point in time," board member Meg Bohmke said.
Stafford High School, in the southern end of the county, is 37 years old, and just about everyone involved agrees that something needs to be done to the building.
The initial plan had been to construct a new building on land the school system owns, the Clift Farm tract in the southern part of the county. The old school would then have been used for a countywide career and technical education center.
But School Board members felt the price for such a plan was too high, and last year decided to rebuild Stafford High on its existing site.
On Aug. 9, 2011, the board approved a plan calling for a new school with nearly 275,000 square feet, at a cost of about $66 million.
THE AUTO PROGRAM
As it's designed, the new high school will be smaller than the current school by more than 10,000 square feet.
Space for the auto program would require about 9,000 square feet.
So, while the new school is designed to have 29,000 square feet for career and technical education, including a cosmetology center and small-engine repair lab, it doesn't include space for the school's popular automotive program.
"Something had to give," said School Board Chairwoman Stephanie Johnson. "It's one of those situations where we all do have to give a little bit."
Bohmke said that school officials made the decision with input from the director of career and technical education. And School Board members knew that an automotive program was in the works at nearby Germanna Community College.
The school division is now exploring a partnership with Germanna, which recently opened its automotive program about two miles away from Stafford High.
Board members previously considered busing Stafford High students to automotive programs at North Stafford and Brooke Point high schools. But Scott Horan, assistant superintendent of facilities, told the board that those programs are too crowded to accommodate all of Stafford High's students.
Some 115 students are enrolled in Stafford High's auto program.
"This program is not going away," Johnson said of the school's auto program. "It might be removed from Stafford High School, but it's not going away."
Board members remain committed to offering the program to any interested student. And some members said they still hope the program can stay on school grounds.
School Board member Dewayne McCosker said he's determined to "make sure we get this thing built on site and find a way to pay for it."
But the options for keeping it on site aren't cheap. Horan said the program could be added to the new school for about $1 million. But this would delay the project for a year and take space from other classrooms and programs. Another option is to house the program in a detached building on school grounds for about $3 million.
"If I had a money tree in my backyard, I would personally pick $3 million off of it for this," Johnson said. "I know it's an important program for the county as a whole. But we have $66 million. That's what was approved for the project, and we need to remain within that amount."
The school division plans to start seeking bids for the project by January.
Board member Nanette Kidby said that she hopes a bid will come in for under $66 million, so the school division would have enough money to include the program.
WHAT ABOUT THE FIELDS?
School Board members also are considering options for Stafford High's sports teams.
Building the new school should take two years, and during that time the school's football, boys soccer, lacrosse and tennis teams would be unable to practice on their regular fields.
School Board members have been given five options to consider for accommodating the teams, but haven't settled on one yet.
The board immediately rejected the idea of installing new fields on the Clift Farm property. That option could cost more than $600,000 in the next three years. School Board members said that price was too steep to solve a temporary problem.
Other options include staggering practice times or using other locations, including nearby Chichester Park, the YMCA, the Fredericksburg Country Club or other Stafford County schools.
Another option involves the football team using the baseball fields during the fall, a plan that has drawn the ire of baseball players and their parents.
So far, these options are not scheduled for a vote, and board members haven't expressed partiality toward any particular plan.
School Board members were able to placate members of the JROTC program by allowing them to keep their building on campus.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
WHAT HAPPENED: At 37, Stafford High School needs some work. The School Board voted last year to replace the building with a new one. As the project moves forward and the county prepares to solicit bids, members of the public have complained about the plans.AT ISSUE: The two most contentious points include plans to scrap the high school's popular automotive program and the two-year planned interruption in the use of athletic fields. WHY IT MATTERS: Fans of the automotive program say it provides the county with much-needed trained mechanics. The school division says the program would require at least $3 million to keep it on Stafford High grounds. Student athletes say that the disruption of practice time and home games could affect their ability to get scholarships.