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2017-11-08 / Real Estate

School, county leaders weigh replacing four schools

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


Originally slated for a $20.3 million renovation, Reams Road Elementary is one of four schools that could be rebuilt entirely. 
JAMES HASKINS Originally slated for a $20.3 million renovation, Reams Road Elementary is one of four schools that could be rebuilt entirely. JAMES HASKINS School and county leaders are considering whether to replace four aging elementary schools rather than extensively renovate them – a change that would require an estimated $60 million in additional funding.

The schools – Crestwood, Ettrick, Harrowgate and Reams – are part of a $304 million revitalization program approved by county voters in 2013.

The first six projects on that list are in various stages of completion. That includes replacements for three other elementary schools and a new school on Old Hundred Road to relieve severe overcrowding at Midlothian’s J.B. Watkins Elementary.

Now members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors are wondering if it makes more sense financially to replace the four remaining schools as well.

“There’s an estimated lifespan for renovated buildings versus new buildings and I think that’s something we have to focus on,” said Chris Winslow, supervisor of the Clover Hill District. “When you have limited dollars, you have to think about the best way to use them. Long term there could be significant cost savings going with this approach. I think that’s a very smart way to look at it.”

The school system’s current five-year capital improvement budget includes $76.1 million to renovate the four elementary schools at the back end of the revitalization program: $20.3 million for Reams, $19.9 million for Ettrick, $18.5 million for Harrowgate and $17.4 million for Crestwood.

Renovating those buildings, which are between 49 and 58 years old, would add about 25 years to their respective lifespans.

Based on a facility condition assessment, the school system instead recommends building new schools, which would cost more but also would have an estimated 60-year lifespan.

Christina Berta, the school system’s new chief financial officer, presented findings from that assessment to members of the Audit and Finance Committee last week.

“I think what’s important for us is we need some decision point dates – in other words, if this is going to impact the [schools’] opening, what are the dates by which the board has to make a decision?” said Supervisor Steve Elswick, who represents the Board of Supervisors on the committee. “The board needs to look at what data we need to make those decisions.”

Superintendent James Lane said the school system needs “some solid fiscal decisions” from elected officials in the next six months to keep the final four school construction projects on track to be completed by September 2021.

“Ultimately, the funding is going to drive the decision point,” he added.

Lane acknowledged that the school system may not have any choice but to replace Harrowgate Elementary. The school has been targeted for demolition as part of the Economic Development Authority’s plan to develop nearby property for use as an industrial megasite.

Since being informed of the EDA’s project, school officials have determined that there is adequate acreage in Harrowgate Park to build a replacement elementary school there. They’ve concluded that the other three elementary schools could be demolished and rebuilt at their current locations. That means the school system won’t have to purchase land and prepare it as a school site.

Lane also noted that the school system projects enrollment to grow by 70 to 105 students at each of the four schools.

“So if I do the math, that’s probably equivalent to half of a new elementary school,” Elswick said.

“I think that’s a fair way to look at it,” Lane replied.

School capacity is a major concern for Elswick, given the rapid pace of new home construction in the northwestern corner of the Matoaca District.

“I know that’s not part of the [current] bond referendum, but there’s a need for more schools as the county continues to grow,” he said. “More families are moving into the county. A lot of them are going into the western part of the county and we have to have places to educate those kids.” 

Clarification: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we reported that Superintendent James Lane said building four new elementary schools would increase capacity by 70-100 students. He was referring to enrollment growth at each of the schools, not capacity. 

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