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2017-12-20 / News

School maintenance backlog on the rise

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

Catching up on overdue major building maintenance could cost Chesterfield’s school system more than $100 million, a school official acknowledged during a meeting last week.

Christina Berta, chief financial officer for Chesterfield County Public Schools, told members of the Audit and Finance Committee that facilities staff are “working through a laundry list of projects” as they conduct a system-wide assessment of school building maintenance.

“The last [estimate] was about $125 or $130 million in critical needs that have been identified by the team, but we’re still scrubbing that list,” she said.

According to Berta, major maintenance will be part of Superintendent James Lane’s presentation when he rolls out the school system’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget on Jan. 16.

Chief Operations Officer Nita Mensia-Joseph said she’s hopeful her team will have a preliminary report from the facilities assessment ready by then.

“As we embark on the next [capital improvement program], we’re going to come prepared with a document that says this is every single thing that needs to be addressed at each school,” added School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi. Berta’s estimate appeared to surprise the two county supervisors who sit on Audit and Finance, Steve Elswick (Matoaca) and Chris Winslow (Clover Hill).

“How did that number get so big?” Elswick asked.

Siddiqi claimed the backlog in major maintenance mostly is a product of the 2008 recession, when school officials deferred facilities projects and reallocated operating funds to avoid having to lay off teachers during a period of severe budget shortfalls.

“The revenues just weren’t there. They were confronted with a big decision: Do we try to squeeze a little bit more life out of this roof or do we reduce classroom teaching positions?” he said. “These decisions weren’t limited to Chesterfield. They were made across the commonwealth and across the country as people protected vital resources.”

Matt Harris, the county’s budget director, noted that some funding for deferred school maintenance could come from the next bond referendum – perhaps as soon as 2020.

Chesterfield voters in 2013 overwhelmingly approved the sale of $304 million in bonds to revitalize several of the school system’s oldest buildings.

Work is proceeding on three of those projects: an extensive renovation of Providence Middle School and replacements for both Beulah and Enon elementary schools.

School officials have acquired property off Old Hundred Road in Midlothian for construction of a new elementary school to relieve overcrowding at nearby J.B. Watkins Elementary.

Manchester Middle originally was targeted for renovation as part of the 2013 bond referendum, but the school system decided it made more sense to build a replacement school on its current site.

Similar changes are pending for four other elementary schools that were originally slated for renovation: Crestwood, Ettrick, Harrowgate and Reams.

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.

School officials appear to have decided instead to replace them. New buildings would have a lifespan of 60 years, but would require an estimated $60 million in additional funding.

“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,” Winslow said last month.

For older buildings not included in the current revitalization program, Siddiqi said the school system will decide how to proceed after receiving the facility condition assessment.

“What we want to look at is, if it’s just a roof [that needs to be replaced], then we can go with the roof,” he added. “If it’s a roof, HVAC, internet cables we know we need to have in a 21st century school, then we’ll have to talk about renovate versus rebuild. We don’t have enough information yet to have that conversation.” ¦

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