Referendum to build a school?

Published 6:28 pm Tuesday, April 9, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree has suggested that Isle of Wight hold a referendum on building two new schools in the northern end of the county.

The Board of Supervisors, based on a recommendation by the School Board, is considering either renovating or replacing Hardy Elementary School and renovating Westside Elementary School.

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 “This is a big commitment by our community,” said Acree. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

And while Isle of Wight gave up its ability to hold a referendum on potential bond issues in 1985, School Boards are not required to borrow money through the Board of Supervisors, as funding for new schools can be obtained through the state Literary Fund, said an attorney familiar with funding school construction. 

Also, referendums cannot be held on any subject in the Commonwealth and must be tied to a statute in the Code of Virginia, and the attorney is not aware of a statute for school capital projects. 

Smithfield High School was financed through the Literary Fund, but funding for schools built after that went through the Board of Supervisors, according to the attorney.

Meanwhile, opting out of bond referendums was seen at the time as a way to avoid annexation by the city of Franklin, and to undo it would require an amendment to the Virginia constitution, according to verbal opinions from two state-level attorneys when the question came up 10 years ago. 

To undo the inability to hold referendums would take several years, according to the attorneys.

Instead, the Board is now only required to hold public hearings when new debt is being considered. 

The question arose in 2009 when the county was considering taking on debt for the Norfolk water deal — an agreement struck without a public hearing. 

Acree referenced the water deal, as well as the land purchases made by former Boards of Supervisors, in which the residents did not have direct input.

Acree also suggested referendums be held for public safety items, such as squad buildings — another group of typically large ticket items.

Had referendums been held, Acree said, the county may not have ended up with two multi-million dollar fire and rescue buildings within a few miles of each other, referring to the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department and the Isle of Wight County Volunteer Rescue Squad. 

Smithfield Supervisor Dick Grice suggested the county do what was done for Georgie Tyler — hire a third party consultant to assess the pros and cons of either renovating the existing Hardy Elementary versus replacing the school.

The School Board has called for renovating the nearly 60-year-old school at a cost of $14 million. 

In the run-up to the decision to build Georgie Tyler, it was found that building a new school would cost one million more than renovating the old school, which was subsequently torn down. 

Grice was concerned that the School Board’s report on Hardy did not address infrastructure issues such as the roof, septic system, plumbing, water and sewer availability, the lack of air conditioning in the kitchen and other items. 

For example, the school does not have a sprinkler system because it relies on a well for its water.

The seven-page report, issued March 25 by RRMM Architects, spoke of a visual inspection and noted cracks and buckling in the walls and clogged gutters, among other concerns. Overall, the building was in good condition with some areas of concern, according to the report.  

The report was conducted after the School Board and Board of Supervisors went on a joint tour of Hardy and after the schools proposed the estimated $14 million renovation. 

County staff plans to research both options — renovation versus new school and referendums— and bring them back to the Board for discussion at its April 18 meeting. 


Treated as a city

By decided to forgo referendums for borrowing money, Isle of Wight opted to be treated like a city in the eyes of the Virginia Constitution. 

The distinction falls under Article VII, Local Government, Section 10, Debt. 

However, the Constitution does not indicate how a county government may undo that provision, should it choose to do so. 

The question arose about 10 years ago, when Isle of Wight was poised to borrow money for its now notorious Norfolk water deal.

A supervisor at the time indicated that by not having to go to the voters every time the county wanted to borrow money, it has provided financial flexibility for projects.

Interestingly, Isle of Wight is the eighth most indebted county in Virginia, out of 95, with a balance of $238.6 million, according to according to the 2017 comparative report of local government revenues.  {/mprestriction}