5-cent tax hike eyed for schools

Published 8:29 pm Tuesday, December 3, 2019

By Frederic Lee 

Staff writer

Isle of Wight County officials are looking at raising the real estate tax rate by 5 cents to fund the replacement of two elementary schools in the county.

If enacted, the tax rate would increase from 85 to 90-cents per $100 in assessed value — a $125 increase a year in taxes for the median-priced house in Isle of Wight, valued at $250,000. 

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It would also create an additional $2.4 million in revenue annually if the county population remains stagnant, according to James E. Sanderson with financial consulting firm Davenport and Company LLC.

The 5-cent real estate tax increase was discussed Monday in a joint capital improvements plan committee meeting between members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, School Board and county and school division staff. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The additional revenue from a real estate hike could be used to help fund the debt service on two additional schools, each hypothetically costing $32 million.  

The $32 million construction cost stems from a study by Alpha Corp. that pins the replacement of Hardy Elementary School at $31.8 million. County Administrator Randy Keaton said that that figure was extrapolated to serve as a cost estimate for the replacement of Westside Elementary School. 

County officials are leaning towards the replacement of Hardy Elementary in coming years, while not as firm in terms of whether to renovate or replace Westside Elementary.   

That being said, the actual cost to build a new Hardy Elementary School won’t be known until the school division has hired an architect and decided upon a prototype school model, according to Isle of Wight County Schools Superintendent James Thornton. 

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice said that the sooner a firm dollar amount on what the costs would be to build a new Hardy Elementary, the sooner the county can plan accordingly. 

Grice and Board of Supervisors Chairman William McCarty urged the school division to move forward with the process of getting a more exact cost estimate for the new Hardy Elementary School, and Grice said that it would be addressed at the Dec. 12 Board of Supervisors worksession. 

School Board Chairperson Vicky Hulick said that she was eager to move forward with the plans for Hardy.  

Thornton said that that process starts with putting an RFP out for an architect to head the Hardy construction project, who would then come up with a certain square footage and price point based on whatever school prototype is chosen. 

Sanderson presented a variety of financing models, showing what the county’s current debt is and how it could be affected by an increased debt from funding two new elementary schools. 

The county currently owes $195.7 million, with $138 million in principal and $57.7 million in interest.

Two $32 million elementary schools financed through bonds with 2.71-percent interest rates would add $89.7 million to that amount, according to Sanderson.  

Sanderson marked Monday’s bond interest rates at 2.71 percent for the construction projects, which he said was  “very, very low” for the bond market. 

Keaton stated that a lot of the numbers, including the cost of the new schools, bond interest rates and other figures were based on conjecture and are not final. 

Keaton later added that with the 5-cent real estate hike, the county could get pretty close to funding the new schools in the hypothetical scenario. 

While the existing debt service for Isle of Wight County sits at $12.6 million in fiscal 2020, it drops to $12.2 million in fiscal 2025 and $10 million by fiscal 2030 without new schools, according to Sanderson. 

If two new, $32 million elementary schools were built in the county and financed through bonds, the debt service could climb to $15.7 million in fiscal 2025 and $13.6 million in 2030.  

These projections have the financing for Hardy Elementary taking place in fiscal 2020 and that for Westside Elementary in fiscal 2023. 

Isle of Wight County officials recently took a tour of Florence Bowser Elementary School in Suffolk as a potential prototype for a new elementary school in the county. That school is 114,500 square feet, houses up to 1,000 students and cost $25.5 million, according to information provided by Isle of Wight County Schools. 

With multiple housing developments either approved or pending in Isle of Wight County, with a focus in the northern end, it appears the county may grow in population in coming years.   

Hardy and Westside Elementary schools are the two oldest schools in the county and currently house 491 and 761 students, respectively. 

Both facilities suffer from a variety of issues, from a failing septic system to a too small gymnasium. 

If built, the Hardy building will be designed to accommodate roughly 850 students, according to Hulick. {/mprestriction}