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Why not put the SHS decision to a vote?

November 18, 2012 12:10 am


Will Glen Allen High serve as a template for a new Stafford High? Residents may be asked for their vote.

IN a recent editorial, The Free Lance-Star characterized my position of requiring voter input on building a new Stafford High School instead of renovating the existing facility as "a bad idea" ["SHS restart? No!" Oct. 23]. Disappointingly, the editorial board did not offer a thorough examination of the flawed and incomplete process that is driving the construction of a new facility, and disregarded the more fiscally responsible option of renovating Stafford High.

As a member of the Board of Supervisors, I have a responsibility to protect the interests of the residents I serve. Providing the greatest value for every tax dollar is essential especially when it comes to educational expenditures, as the children who are taught in Stafford public schools deserve to get the most from those dollars. When dollars intended for education are spent on niceties instead of necessities, the public's confidence in education spending is undermined.

Yet despite the necessity of justifying the decision to build a new school instead of renovating, upgrading, and expanding the existing facility, those promoting the destruction and replacement of Stafford High School have offered little beyond their own personal preferences to explain their conclusion. Simply put, they want something "new." And when new-facility proponents are asked for hard, measurable data to support their conclusions, those who ask for such information are pilloried and dismissed as obstructing progress.

It is precisely because of this resistance that I conclude that the only way taxpayers will be told about respective benefits and shortcomings of building new or renovating is to insist that the decision be put to residents in an advisory referendum. Ultimately, the people of Stafford County will have to pay the great difference in cost between renovation and building a new facility. Before becoming obligated to a staggeringly expensive capital-improvement project, it is both reasonable and appropriate for residents to be given an opportunity to weigh in.

Obviously, I believe renovation to be a viable and more cost-effective option for taxpayers and students alike. Culpeper is planning a $20 million renovation, and Prince William County has recently renovated facilities instead of demolishing and building anew. These local governments did so because renovation is invariably more cost-effective.

Proponents have yet to offer any evidence that the claimed inadequacies of the current facility could not be remedied through a thorough renovation. For example, the $7 million renovation of Woodbridge High School addressed that facility's dated "open classroom" design, creating a restored building more in keeping with contemporary education practices.

Stafford has retained and reused our old high schools, including the Rowser building, the Stafford School Board offices, and Drew Middle School. Yet demolishing the current Stafford High School, a building estimated to be worth $36 million, is a centerpiece of the plan to build a new facility. Even if a decision were made to build a new Stafford High School on another site, the current building could be used as a career and technical-education center and we would have a place to advance the education of our brightest in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

If we were to renovate, the costs incurred would be significantly less than demolishing and building a new facility. While the School Board has been less than precise in offering cost estimates for renovation (another indicator that renovation has not been thoroughly considered as an option), the range of estimates it has provided are all significantly lower than the $66.1 million (before cost overruns that have come to typify such projects) for a new facility.

Not surprisingly, that estimate does not reflect associated road improvements, replacement of the on-site practice fields, or the value of the auto-tech shop to be eliminated in the rebuild. Combined, these expenses and loss of value can be estimated to approach an additional $10 million.

With scarce resources and the economy still trying to get a firm footing, the lower costs of renovating relative to building an entirely new facility loom particularly large. Stafford's debt capacity is limited. If we demolish Stafford High and build a new facility, our ability to affordably borrow to build a planned sixth high school would be impaired.

The recommendation to demolish and build a new Stafford High was made by a small group who failed to properly abide by our open-meeting laws, let alone conduct or promote an extensive and detailed discussion of the respective pros and cons of renovation versus new construction.

It is now time to add some sunlight to the process and engage the residents who will ultimately have to pay for whatever decision is made. In my view, that is anything but "a bad idea."

Paul Milde represents the Aquia District on the Stafford Board of Supervisors.

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