Westside cost now at $66M

Published 5:11 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

School committee picks new prototype

Replacing Westside Elementary with a new middle school could cost upwards of $66 million, according to Isle of Wight County Schools’ latest estimates.

Jeff Harris, co-director of RRMM Architects’ K-12 design studio, quoted Isle of Wight’s School Board a price of $66.4 million to replace the 1960s-era school, which currently houses grades 4-6, with a new building modeled after Col. Fred Cherry Middle School in Suffolk that would house grades 5-7.

Renovating the existing school could potentially cost only $47.2 million, not including design fees or furniture, Harris said, but “there are a lot of unknowns” given the age of the building.

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The School Board selected RRMM for the Westside project in 2020, planning at the time to build a larger version of Windsor’s Georgie D. Tyler Middle School, which Isle of Wight had built for roughly $22 million in 2014.

But a committee of students, teachers and parents are now recommending Isle of Wight choose Cherry as its prototype instead. The 166,000-square-foot school, which opened in 2018, offers self-contained wings for each grade level, which school officials say would also work well with Westside’s “house system.” Modeled off the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, at Westside, students are sorted into one of four “houses,” each with its own name, motto and color, and compete in weekly and monthly challenges against other houses.

Rather than stacked along walls, Cherry Middle’s lockers are counter height to create additional work spaces for students, and its classrooms have windows looking into the hallways so teachers can monitor students in and out of the classroom simultaneously. The design also features an open-concept cafeteria that would adjoin a “main street” central corridor.

The Cherry Middle design is much newer than Georgie Tyler’s, which, while built in 2014, was first drawn 30 years ago.

“It’s out of date,” said Westside Principal Matt Johnson.

The School Board had estimated a cost of $35 million for the project in 2020 under the Georgie Tyler option, but according to Harris, the current construction market has driven the estimated cost to $65.4 million. The Cherry design, he said, would cost $66.4 million.

School Board Chairwoman Denise Tynes argued against trying to save money by renovating the existing school — recalling from her days as a teacher in the mid-1990s that there was work done in the building to remove asbestos.

“If we renovate it, if we come across more asbestos …the cost is going to go up even more,” Tynes said.

Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors had borrowed roughly $34 million in 2020 to replace another school, Hardy Elementary, but inflation and pandemic-related supply chain issues drove the cost to $36.8 million last year. The supervisors had planned to borrow an additional $30 million-plus this year for Westside, but defunded the project in favor of borrowing up to $19.5 million to fund the extra Hardy cost and other capital needs.

Were a new funding source for Westside to come available, designing the new school, costs could still fluctuate up or down in the 3 to 3-1/2 years it would take before students would be able to enter the building, Harris said, estimating a similar 3- to 3-1/2-year turnaround for renovating the existing school.