School Board findings challenged

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, August 20, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The Isle of Wight County School Board was accused of being unable to adequately assess its future needs during the first meeting of the county’s capital improvement plan committee. 

On top of the agenda was how to pay for the proposed replacement of Hardy and Westside elementary schools — originally slated for renovations by the School Board. 

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“The schools’ numbers have bounced all over the place,” said Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, adding that the School Board has been unable to anticipate where it is going. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The committee wants to do a better job at nailing down the first five years of the capital improvement plan, as it often requires borrowing money. In previous years, the focus has been on the first year, with everything else often getting pushed forward or back for one reason or another. 

And then there was a surprise two years ago — the Career and Technical Education program — that Isle of Wight County borrowed $7.9 million to finance, said Robertson.

Committee members, which include Robertson, as well as Board Chairman William McCarty, Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice, County Administrator Randy Keaton, Budget and Finance Director Stephanie Humphries and Isle of Wight Commissioner of Revenue Gerald Gwaltney, noted that the Board did not hear about the CTE plans until it was revealed at a surprise pep rally with Smithfield Foods. 

Foods donated $3 million to the program. 

The CTE program came out of nowhere, said Robertson.

“You can’t just spring that on us,” he said of the need to borrow money. 

Keaton noted that the School Board’s request for a new northern elementary school, estimated at $38 million, and based on population growth projections that have since been questioned, now appears to be off the table. 

Grice said that school capacity didn’t come up in the conversation when the CTE request was made and now it is. 

During the lead up to the Board’s approval of the $7.9 million for the CTE program, Isle of Wight schools Superintendent Jim Thornton did not indicate that some schools were reaching capacity and that it would need to be addressed soon. 

McCarty questioned why the cost of a new Hardy Elementary School is $32 million when the budget for the new Georgie D. Tyler Middle School was $19 million. 

Grice pointed out that the School Board’s request for a new bus garage was originally $6 million and is now down to $2.5 million. 

Isle of Wight School Board Chairman Vicky Hulick responded to the supervisors’ and staff comments. 

First off, she said school officials should have been invited to the meeting if the division was the subject of the discussion. 

Thornton and Hulick will be invited to the next meeting in September. 

Hulick said the $19 million price for Georgie Tyler did not include “soft costs,” which refers to furniture and other necessities beyond the building. 

Plus, that building was constructed during the recession, she said.

In his estimate of $32 million for a new Hardy Elementary, Brian Camden with Alpha Corporation said that price included the soft costs. 

Hulick said the original estimates provided to the schools came from architects, contractors or the division’s technology team. The real cost is revealed during the bid process and sometimes it’s higher and sometimes it’s lower than the estimate, she said. 

The bus garage cost came down because the School Board revised the design, said Hulick, adding that the $32 million estimate for a new Hardy Elementary came from Alpha Corporation, not the School Board.

Hulick said she began talking about capacity issues to individual supervisors before she went on the School Board in 2016. 

Hulick said they had not disagreed that it was a looming concern. The School Board had contracted for a school population project study that originally came back with a flat forecast, but the School Board rejected it because it did not take into consideration the housing developments already approved by the county but still dormant, she said.

The School Board instead got with county officials to draw up a more accurate forecast of what was possible, said Hulick. 

“We don’t know until it’s here (growth), but we’re trying to be preemptive,” she said. Hulick added that another elementary school could become necessary in the future. 

Hulick said at least one supervisor was aware of the CTE proposal before it was publicly announced at a pep rally. Thornton has said the plans were on Smithfield Foods’ timeline and that was the reason for the way it was rolled out. 

The year before the CTE public roll-out, the School Board had decided to opt out of a career and technical program in Suffolk, a decision which required the division to come up with its own curriculum, and was in the works when Foods became involved. 

Hulick noted that the CTE program has been successful. 

The school division’s long-range facilities plan was developed for the long-range health of the county, said Hulick. While there is a good deal of capacity in the schools in the southern end of Isle of Wight, the issue becomes one of quality of life, she said. 

How long can kids sit on a bus, she asked, noting that if school facilities are not improved, people will not come here. 

Also, in building a new Hardy and Westside, capacity can be added to the design, said Hulick. 

During the committee meeting, McCarty said the School Board jokes about having taxing authority, but added, “I’m sure it’s just a joke.”

Hulick believes the School Board should have taxing authority, as that is the case in many other states. 

She pointed out that the school division budget has fallen from 70 percent of the county’s operating budget to 51 percent over the past 15 years. 

“The school board is an easy target because we don’t have any taxing authority,” said Hulick.  

“I’m just going to keep doing the right thing and I hope they do too. We do better when we work together,” she said.   {/mprestriction}