Fredericksburg school officials are adamant that it is critical to establish a path to a third elementary school by 2024.
They are proposing that the City Council provide funds to construct a new middle school and then transform Walker–Grant Middle School into that third elementary school.
But with no solid numbers to work with and no concrete plans for how to fund the project, some City Council members voiced skepticism of the vision at a joint work session Tuesday evening. They said the city has other pressing infrastructure needs, including a new fire station, hiring nine more police officers and wastewater treatment plant upgrades that Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw said will cost at least $73 million over the next three years.
“We just can’t take this vote on a 40, 50, 60, 70 million-dollar project until we figure out how we can pay it,” said Councilman Billy Withers, whose term ends in December. “Fortunately for you all, I won’t be here … but I could never support spending this kind of money knowing the things we have to do over a three-year span until I knew the whole scheme of how we could pay for this.”
The initial idea was for the city to build a new elementary school to ease overcrowding at Hugh Mercer Elementary. This school year, however, the city reorganized Hugh Mercer Elementary, which had served grades K–2, and Lafayette Upper Elementary, which was for grades 3–5, into two K–5 schools at as a temporary solution.
School Board member Jennifer Boyd said if a new elementary school is built, a new middle school would also be required shortly afterward.
But Councilwoman Kerry Devine said building the new middle school and transforming Walker–Grant into an elementary school would double the estimated cost of $35 million to $40 million for a new school.
Boyd balked at that projection, but Devine expressed concern that building a new middle school might mean giving up other ambitions, such as a proposed partnership with Germanna Community College on a Career Training Education facility.
“When you look at the numbers and what the city has to deal with, it’s huge,” Devine said of the cost of a middle school.
Deputy Schools Superintendent Matthew Eberhardt acknowledged that three years is “an aggressive timeline to build a school,” but he spoke about the path forward.
Eberhardt said last week three architectural firms turned in conceptual proposals. On Sept. 22, those firms will meet with school officials and a consultant from Skanska, a project development and construction group.
Five days later, with advice from Skanska, the School Board will vote on which architect to use. That company will then move forward, with the school system in coming up with details and costs to present to the City Council in December.
Eberhardt said the council should vote on the final project no later than April to meet the June 2024 deadline.
School Board member Malvina Kay urged council members to make a decision as quickly as possible. She also expressed dismay about pushback from city officials, saying she thought everyone was of one accord entering the meeting.
“For 30 years, I’ve watched a vicious cycle of our kids not being educated properly because of poor conditions,” Kay said. “We hire the best teachers, we hire the best administrators and we still fall because we nitpick when we get together.”
Kay said she understands “money is tight,” but added that improved education at the lower levels should mean less need for firefighters and police.
“Your police costs should go down. There should be less fires because they’re educated about fireproofing and all the wonderful things,” Kay said. “It should work together.”
Taxes may increase significantly in the city to pay for the school. Withers said residents without school-aged children have told him they don’t support higher taxes. But Greenlaw said many have stated they’re willing to pay for better schools.
“We might have to bite the bullet,” Greenlaw said. “Our citizens will have to live up to what they’ve told us—that they’re willing to pay for education.”
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