Cost of new elementary school intensifies dialogue between New Kent Board of Supervisors, School Board
At the March 25 work session of New Kent’s Board of Supervisors, a recommendation was made to defer funding for the construction of a new elementary school for the county due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After county leaders approved that proposal during their April 13 regular meeting, the group elected to revisit the issue in the Fall to see if funding could be secured through the Virginia Public School Authority bond process. And while New Kent County Administrator Rodney Hathaway commented that they have provided notice of interest into obtaining funds through the process, it was clear that the increased price tag has sparked concerns from the board of supervisors.
The Board of Supervisors and New Kent’s School board convened Monday night in an effort to discuss the status of the process for the new facility.
With members of Moseley Engineering, the concept designers of the new elementary school, on hand, a summary of the project was provided. The primary focus came into play when it came to the price for the entire project. Originally, the new elementary school was listed at $28 million. Now, the project could range anywhere between $35-37 million.
As dialogue between to emerge, District 5 Supervisor John Lockwood questioned the price after his independent research.
“There are schools of similar size in Chesterfield that cost less than this project,” he commented. “They are estimated to come in at $24-26 million. Even with furniture and technology, that will bring the total cost to $31 million, which is still $4-5 million less than this.”
Representatives of Moseley Engineering responded by saying that some companies build prototype schools and use similar plans when constructing them, giving them a lower cost, especially in localities that constructs multiple facilities with the same company.
“I find it difficult that we have to pay top dollar for a new school when we don’t have a top dollar economy in New Kent,” Lockwood said. “I understand that we need a new school, but why do we need this particular one?”
School Board Chairwoman and District 5 representative Gail Hardinge rebutted, emphasizing that the community was involved in all decisions that were made to that point.
“We wanted to build a community school at the end of the county where people didn’t have those resources,” she said in a passionate argument. “We needed it for more than eight years.
“We have had community involvement that included teachers, students, stakeholders, and even the board of supervisors,” Hardinge continued. “If you decide to put a $26 million cap on this project, then we should just tell the board of supervisors to build it the way they want.”
Superintendent of Schools Brian Nichols interjected, imploring that a solution and direction is needed from the Board of Supervisors to the School Board.
“It really is how we move forward, and I don’t want the public to think we waited since April to provide this information to the Board of Supervisors,” he commented when Lockwood made an inquiry about diverging plans for the school’s construction. “We have been in constant contact and the board can always reach out.”
One of the biggest hiccups facing both entities is that the Board of Supervisors cannot enter closed session with the School Board about the construction under state law. The negotiations must be done between the School Board and then that information is passed on to the local leaders.
After additional comments, District 4 representative Sarah Grier Barber asked a direct question to county leaders.
“How much of a lower price do you want to see this project?” she asked. “Is the $28 million the cap?”
District 3 Supervisor and Board Chairwoman Patricia Paige commented that there are still many unknowns to decipher.
“I think the board is asking the school board to see if they can negotiate a lower cost,” Paige commented, emphasizing that interest and construction costs are at all-time low in comparison to when the project was approved.
Nichols responded with a PowerPoint slide of the school board’s anticipation of the request made by county leaders. The first slide was to stay on current track with the expectation the project would not exceed $35 million. The second was to reissue the bid for construction without additional value costs (i.e. furniture, technology). Finally, the final option would be the complete reissue and rebid of the project at a smaller size and redesign to fit a reduced budget.
Supervisors asked Hathaway about if a project of $35 million would result in a tax increase on citizens. The county administrator responded that he doesn’t believe the price tag would garner a tax hike, but if it exceeds that dollar amount it may have a result that will see an increase.
County leaders did not offer any guidance as far as direction for the school board, recommending that both groups meet sometime in September. Meanwhile, supervisors may take action at their Sept. 8 regular meeting to choose to enter into the bonding pool for money to help assist the project. Entering the pool is not a commitment to borrow the funds.