$70 million for school needs

Published 6:09 pm Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Growth to require northern Isle of Wight improvements

By Elizabeth Pattman

Staff writer

A long-range facility planning committee for Isle of Wight County schools has proposed spending nearly $73 million or more over the next 13 years on multiple school renovations and the construction of a new elementary school in the northern end. 

The committee’s recommendation would allow for the refurbishment of the county’s schools, some of which are more than 60 years old, as well as the construction of new facilities to accommodate the nearly 900 students that are expected to enter the district over the next 12 to 13 years.

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The generation of funding for these measures is estimated to equate to a 6.2-cent real estate tax increase for county residents, according to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Thornton presented the committee’s recommendation to the public in two community meetings last week, held at Westside Elementary and Windsor High School. Included in the presentation were the drafting process of the plans, the final recommendations and a timeline of their implementation. 

The first of the measures needing to be addressed, according to Thornton and the committee, is the renovation of the northern end’s existing, older buildings. If the committee’s recommendations are accepted by the School Board, and then by the Board of Supervisors, both Hardy and Westside elementary schools, as well as the bus garage and maintenance areas, will see extensive refurbishments and additions. These renovations are recommended to begin in 2020 and will cost an estimated $36.9 million, according to Thornton.

The planned renovations and cost estimates were created by architect Jeff Harris, the assistant director of the K-12 Studio at RRMM Architects in Chesapeake.

For Hardy, the committee is recommending a long list of improvements to the building, many of which are cosmetic, as Thornton said the building structure remains strong. Five additional classrooms and a new gym and stage will be added in a new a wing in the rear of the building, creating a closed-in courtyard on the campus. The cafeteria will also be expanded, the media center and nurse’s office will be updated and a STEM maker space will be created in the existing gym. Cosmetic updates expected include a complete renovation of the bathrooms, replacement of ceilings and lighting, updates to tile flooring and the exterior façade, and a kitchen renovation. The total cost for these renovations is estimated at $14.4 million.

Westside will see similar updates, including the exterior refurbishment, four new restrooms, a STEM room and a maker space, updates to the cafeteria, auditorium, administrative offices, and nurse’s office, as well as a redesign of the parking areas. The hallways within the school will also see significant cosmetic improvements, including the removal of lockers to be replaced with seating and flexible furniture, student work displays and new flooring. The Westside renovations are estimated to cost $17.4 million.

According to Thornton, these renovations were prioritized due to the long-range nature of the planning process.

“These students are not going to hit until 12 or 13 years out,” he said of future growth in the county. “If that’s not going to happen until that time and we don’t do anything to Hardy and Westside Elementary School, what are Hardy and Westside going to look like at the end of that? It’s going to be the old Windsor Middle and you’re going to want to tear it down, and then you’re going to pay probably two times, or two and a half times, what it would be to renovate these buildings.”

Details on the renovation of the bus garage and maintenance spaces were not included in the presentation, though Thornton said those updates will cost about $5.1 million.

Renovating Smithfield Middle School’s roof was also included on the committee’s timeline, scheduled for 2026, but was not discussed in the community meeting presentations.

After fixing the existing schools, the committee is recommending that the division seek approval by the Board of Supervisors for the construction of a new elementary school on the northern end by 2028. While no site specifics or design plans were presented, the committee indicated that they expect to have the building open by 2031.

The estimated total cost of this building ranges from $36 to 38.8 million, which is still cheaper than the construction of a new middle school in the northern end, which was discussed and estimated to cost $53 million.

The 2031 opening date also coincides with the 12 to 13-year range in which the division is expected to receive 900 more students due to residential development occurring across the northern end, according to a Cooperative Strategies study completed earlier this year.

“The elementary school is going to have to be built. The growth is coming,” Thornton said.

Shifting classes will help

It has already been announced that the school division plans to keep current third grade students from Hardy Elementary in the same building as they rise to fourth grade next year. According to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, this idea came from a parent during committee meetings after unused classroom space was found in the building. This measure will open up five classrooms at Westside, according to the presentation.

Further along the committee’s timeline, it is recommended that 100 students from Carrollton Elementary — 25 in each grade — be rezoned to Hardy Elementary in 2021. This will take some of the pressure off Carrollton’s crowded classrooms until a renovation there can be discussed for the next capital improvement plan, according to Thornton.

In addition to drawing new boundary lines, the committee has also recommended that the division completely restructure its grade layout. Under the recommendation, Carrollton and Hardy elementary schools will become K-5 schools, while Westside will become a sixth and seventh grade building. The Smithfield High School/Middle School complex will then house grades eight through 12.

The southern end of Isle of Wight

Isle of Wight County schools in the southern end are not in need of the attention that the northern end schools are, according to Schools Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton.

According to school data, he said, these schools — Carrsville Elementary, Windsor High and Georgie Tyler Middle schools — still have room for growth should development spread to the southern end.

“If growth happens in the southern end, we won’t have to be building anything major. We have the southern end solved,” Thornton said.

Renovations and updates to the southern end’s schools have been delayed until discussion on the next CIP begins, according to the committee’s recommendations. 

Who is on the committee

According to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton, more than 100 people signed up to join the long-range facility planning committee when its formation was first announced. Only 18, however, put in the work, he said.

The committee comprises residents, parents and principals representing both the northern and southern end of Isle of Wight County. They were aided by the division’s administrative staff.

“The charge of the committee was to look at our current CIP plan, which the only thing it had in it for a long-range plan was to build a new elementary school on the northern end of the county. It didn’t address 20 to 30 years out in growth,” said Thornton.

Members were Brandol Bradshaw, Julie Branch, Dr. Marsha Cale, Jessica Cecil, Larry Clark, Shante Denson, Craig Fesser, Thomas DiStefano, Tabatha Earnhardt, Jeanine Guzman, Vanessa Johns, Craig Marshall, Carla Myers, Ashley Oliver, Dewey Ray, Tawana Robinson, Diana Theisinger and Marvin Wilcox.

“The committee did so much work,” Thornton said.

Reducing class sizes

Online survey responses from the community also indicated to the committee that smaller class sizes were desired, according to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton. Respondents indicated that they wished to see middle and high school classes range between 20 and 24, and elementary classes capped at 20 students.

Thornton explained during his presentation that, due to cost limitations, that would not be possible. It would cost $1.4 million to hire enough teachers to make that happen, he said.

As such, smaller class size distribution was not included in the committee’s recommendation and the division instead plans to keep middle and high school class sizes between 24 and 29 while elementary classes will be capped at 24. Thornton said these numbers are “kind of more realistic.”

According to him, these numbers can be achieved with the division’s budget that was just passed.

What about trailers?

While waiting on renovations and new construction, Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton said “trailers are inevitable.” While parents and community members strongly argued against the use of trailers at the school through online surveys sent out early this year and no plans or specific dates are in place for the implementation of trailers, Thornton explained that there is no way to avoid their use. 

“At some point, no matter what we choose to do, there will be trailers somewhere,” he said. “But we wanted to limit the amount of that happening. We don’t want to see 5, 10, 15 trailers out here before we have action on the plan.”

What’s next

Following the community meetings, the committee’s recommendations will be shared with the School Board at its June 14 meeting. Dates will be set for open house showings of Hardy, Westside and the bus garage to understand the needed upgrades, according to Thornton. A public hearing on the proposal will be held during the August School Board meetings, at which time the Board will vote on the measures, according to the presentation. If approved by the School Board, the proposal will be passed to the Board of Supervisors for inclusion in the county’s capital improvement plan, sometime in the fall.

Thornton stressed that although the cost is high, these are necessary improvements for the wellbeing of students and the division.

 “Someone paid when I went to school. Someone paid when you went to school. Someone has to pay for public schools,” he said.