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2018-02-14 / Front Page

County, schools working on 2020 bond referendum

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

County and schools finance staff have begun sketching out the broad strokes of a new bond referendum that could be on the ballot as soon as 2020.

Matt Harris, the county’s budget director, acknowledged last week that’s a “reasonable” time frame for the next referendum, in which Chesterfield residents will be asked to approve incurring additional debt to fund a variety of public infrastructure projects.

Harris noted that he and Christina Berta, chief financial officer for Chesterfield County Public Schools, are working together to determine how much new debt the county and school system can take on while still complying with fiscal policies established by the Board of Supervisors last year.

The current projection for the bond referendum is $550 million – $400 million of which would be allocated to the school system – but Harris was quick to point out that number could change over the next two years based on economic conditions and other factors.

“The good thing is we’re starting to have those conversations now. That will help us develop a final product that works really well,” he said.

Chesterfield voters most recently approved a $353 million bond referendum in 2013. Most of that money ($304 million) was designated for school projects, with the remainder allocated to the county’s share of a new regional emergency communications system.

The newest county government buildings – the Harrowgate Road fire station and North Courthouse Road Library, which opened in 2015 and 2016, respectively – each were funded with the proceeds from a 2004 bond referendum. Since the last recession, the Board of Supervisors has focused on maintenance of the county’s existing facilities. Funds from the next bond referendum likely will be used to address population growth in the western U.S. Route 60 and 360 corridors – particularly, new fire stations and road upgrades to serve an increasingly robust housing market.

The school system’s proposed five-year capital improvement plan, which was expected to be approved (along with its proposed fiscal year 2019 budget) by the School Board Monday night, includes $285 million in anticipated bond sale proceeds for the construction of two elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.

Because that funding has been targeted for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, it’s nothing more than a projection at this point. Only the first year of each new CIP is a binding commitment from the School Board and Board of Supervisors, which means the remainder of the plan is subject to change.

The school system’s proposed CIP also includes $17.5 million annually from 2021 and 2023 for major facility maintenance.

Schools staff so far have identified an estimated $88 million in “critical” maintenance needs. That number won’t be finalized until after they complete a system-wide facilities condition assessment later this year.

Still, school officials acknowledged they have a lot of catching up to do on major maintenance projects that were deferred because of recession-era budget cuts – and they could use a portion of their proceeds from a 2020 bond referendum to do it.

“The leadership of the two boards should come together after the facilities assessment is done and really lay out a prioritization plan with the two administrators and staff,” said Javaid Siddiqi, who represents Midlothian on the School Board. “We’re really going to have to be on the same page because in the end, these are the county’s buildings. We use them as schools, but we all need to be aware of what is happening with these buildings.”

During a School Board work session last month, Chairman John Erbach said “it feels like we’ve been holding the school system together with duct tape and we’ve run out of tape.”

“We all have that neighbor who doesn’t take care of his house. Everyone knows who it is. If you don’t, you’re the one,” he added.

At the December 2017 meeting of the county’s Audit and Finance Committee, which includes two members of the Board of Supervisors and two School Board representatives, Berta said schools staff had identified more than $125 million in overdue major maintenance projects – such as new HVAC systems, roof replacements and other structural issues.

That estimate has been reduced to approximately $88 million because it included maintenance needs at four aging elementary schools – Crestwood, Ettrick, Harrowgate and Reams – that now are expected to be demolished and rebuilt over the next two years.

Each of the four were originally slated for extensive renovation as part of the 2013 bond referendum, but school and county officials agreed it made more sense in the long term to spend additional money and build replacement schools instead.

The school system’s current CIP includes $76.1 million to renovate the four elementary schools: $20.3 million for Reams, $19.9 million for Ettrick, $18.5 million for Harrowgate and $17.4 million for Crestwood.

Its proposed CIP allocates a total of $133.2 million in fiscal year 2019 to rebuild those schools, plus $16.7 million for renovation of Matoaca Middle School’s east campus and $8.1 million (on top of $38.1 million previously budgeted) to build a replacement for Manchester Middle.

That represents a total increase of nearly $82 million. At last week’s Audit and Finance meeting, Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick said he wished the Board of Supervisors had known the extent of the school system’s major maintenance needs before it agreed to rebuild rather than renovate the four elementary schools.

“That $88 million scares me because you didn’t say ‘needed maintenance,’ you said ‘critical maintenance,’ which in my book means it needs to be done very soon,” he added.

“I think if our board knew you had $88 million in critical needs, we would’ve said, ‘Wait a minute. What’s the best way to spend that money? On new schools or major critical maintenance?’ That’s what we have to do better in the future.”

Siddiqi acknowledged the preliminary findings of the facilities assessment are “very troubling” and suggested the two elected boards “will have to work through it together.”

“We knew there were critical needs,” he said. “Did we know it would be upwards of $100 million? I would say no. But did we know there was information coming? Yes. That’s why we commissioned the study, because we were hearing things across the county.

“When you commission a study, sometimes you’re going to get information you don’t necessarily want to receive. It is what it is.” ¦

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