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Fredericksburg council questions cost of latest new school proposal
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Fredericksburg council questions cost of latest new school proposal

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When City Councilwoman Kerry Devine was a member of the Fredericksburg City Schools Enrollment, Capacity and Expansion Task Force, she believed she had a firm grasp on the path the city School Board wanted to take to relieve overcrowding at Hugh Mercer Elementary.

Devine was under the impression that the school system would recommend constructing a third elementary school. And the City Council unanimously approved a resolution of support for a new school earlier this year under that same belief.

But after the School Board came back with a recommendation to build a middle school instead and convert Walker–Grant Middle into a third elementary school—at a cost significantly higher than the $40 million budgeted in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan—council members have begun questioning the proposal.

At a recent council work session to discuss the new school, Devine said after discussing a new elementary school for 18 months, she felt like the middle school proposal was a “bait and switch.”

Councilman Matt Kelly noted that in the minutes of the task force’s final meeting on March 24, a new middle school was never presented as an option.

“To be perfectly honest, I think all of us were taken by surprise reading in the paper this summer that the School Board had moved ahead with plans for a middle school because that wasn’t the understanding that we had,” Devine said.

Devine said she could support a new middle school, but at a much lower cost than the $65 million price tag Assistant City Manager Mark Whitley presented to council at the work session.

The Fredericksburg School Board selected First Choice—a public-private partnership between Moseley Architects and English Construction Co.—to prepare preliminary design and a cost estimate for the new school.

City Council is weighing an interim agreement that would allow First Choice to move forward in developing a preliminary plan and specify a timeline to reach a final comprehensive agreement. Whitley said the approval of the interim agreement could take place in November or December.

Devine isn’t the only member of City Council apprehensive about the cost of the middle school, which would be located in the Idlewild subdivision.

After Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw reminded council members that they approved a resolution of support for a new school, Councilman Billy Withers said the parameters have changed.

“I don’t remember us approving a $65 million school,” Withers said. “I think it was implied that [$35 million] is what we were approving—period.”

Whitley presented three options to the City Council at the Oct. 12 work session. The first is to construct a new 160,000-square-foot middle school with a capacity of 1,100. Debt service estimates for this option are $3.1 million per year. That’s based on a $59 million bond issuance with a $6 million cash contribution.

Option 2 is to build a middle school for $55 million ($2.5 million debt service per year) with the same $6 million cash contribution for a bond issuance of $49 million. The third option is a $41 million school with a $1.8 million yearly debt service and a bond issuance of $35 million.

Whitley said he hopes the cost of renovating Walker–Grant into a third elementary school will be covered by federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The debate over a new school is complicated by other projects on the city’s list of capital needs, including a new fire station and a needed upgrade to the water-treatment plant.

Councilman Jason Graham, a staunch supporter of a new school, said he’s opposed to the final two options because he’s concerned they wouldn’t provide a school big enough to keep up with the city’s growth.

“I worry that we are taking too much of a short-term approach by limiting ourselves in capacity for the middle school and end up having to spend exponentially more down the line,” Graham said.

Kelly said the new school will cause the real estate tax rate in the city to rise dramatically. He said he’s unable to convincingly tell the public that spending a large amount of money on a school will improve the quality of education students receive.

Kelly cited statistics that show the city’s student-to-teacher ratio isn’t that far off of other schools in Virginia that are performing better in terms of test scores, graduation rates and other metrics.

“If we’re all here to have children be successful and have good lives, then this needs to be a broader conversation,” Kelly said, “because bricks and mortar will not deal with some of the issues we’re dealing with.”

Councilman Chuck Frye Jr. asked that council be considerate of students when discussing the school system’s shortcomings.

“If they’re paying attention, they may feel bad about themselves by the way we talk about them,” Frye said. “They may feel like they’re losers. … Everything goes down to scores.”

Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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