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March 10, 2017

Analysis: Middle school debate remains at impasse

Photos/Cassandra Brown
Supervisor Chris Butler and school board member Don Mason review middle school attendance zone maps at Thursday’s joint meeting.
Assistant Superintendant Janice Bourne starts the school system’s pitch for a new, $43-million proposal.
Supervisor Mary Leigh McDaniel and school board member “Duke” Bland confer.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Nobody wants to suffer buyer’s remorse.

If Fauquier’s elected boards somehow agree on a middle school construction plan before adoption of the county budget in less than two weeks, an epidemic of that malady seems likely.

In a span of 16 days, the county school board and board of supervisors have conducted intense, face-to-face negotiations on these proposals:

• A $55-million, 1,000-student, consolidated middle school in Warrenton.

• A $43.3-million version with “seats” for 50 fewer students.

• A 650-student middle school with an uncertain price tag — perhaps $35 million.

The boards remain far from consensus as the deliberations grow more emotional and as the pressure of the annual budget clock ticks toward the supervisors’ scheduled adoption Thursday, March 23.

Education officials spent about six months coming up with the first plan, for a $55-million building on Taylor Middle School’s campus along East Shirley Avenue in Warrenton.

The process included a $138,000 consulting contract and a series of meetings for a 45-member committee of school system employees, parents and other interested citizens. Supervisors Chris Granger (Center District) and Mary Leigh McDaniel (Marshall) served on that committee.

The study group started with concepts that included renovating or constructing new schools at Taylor and Warrenton, built in 1951 and 1936, respectively. It concluded Dec. 7 with endorsement of the $55-million plan for a new, consolidated school.

In a Jan. 17 meeting with school officials, Mr. Granger — the supervisor with arguably the greatest interest and most knowledge of the plan — expressed his opposition to the proposal.

But, the school board two weeks later voted, 5-0, to endorse it.

Two days after that, all five county supervisors — who control taxing and spending — made clear their opposition.

Finally, the two full boards met to discuss the proposal Feb. 21. The school board pitched its $55-million plan as the best, most cost-effective solution to Warrenton’s aging middle schools. The supervisors unanimously said they couldn’t support it.

In the following days, school officials scrambled, called in architects and came up with a plan that would cost an estimated $12 million less. The school board unanimously endorsed that alternative Monday night.

But, for it to work, the supervisors would need to abandon or modify their policy that requires a voter referendum for any project that would incur more than $25 million in debt. The alternative plan called for selection of an architectural firm to begin modification of existing blueprints in July and the start of construction next March. A referendum effectively would delay the process a full fiscal year.

Cutting the building’s size by almost 18,000 square feet and accelerating construction would save about 20 percent, school officials said.

They took that plan back to the supervisors Thursday afternoon, exactly two weeks before scheduled adoption of the fiscal 2018 budget.

Assistant Superintendent Janice Bourne led the new pitch, with support from school board members.

Then, the supervisors started.

“I’m of the mind we need to put this to a referendum,” Supervisor Chris Butler (Lee) said. “I think if we do that, you can sell it to the taxpayers.”

But, Mr. Butler expressed reservations about the new plan.

“I’ll go with you if it’s a good concept,” he added. “That’s what the people are asking for . . . . But, I definitely don’t support raising the $25-million referendum cap.”

Supervisors Chairman Rick Gerhardt (Cedar Lee) chimed in: “I’m not gonna put my colleagues on the spot, but there are not three votes to raise the referendum limit.”

Another hour of intense discussion followed.

The rambling conversation ended with the idea of a new, 650-student middle school in Warrenton.

School board member “Duke” Bland (Marshall) asked if the supervisors could support that concept — without a referendum.

After some hemming and hawing, Supervisors Gerhardt, Granger and McDaniel said they might go for that.

But, following the meeting, three school board members — Donna Grove (Cedar Run), Don Mason (Lee) and Mr. Bland — expressed varying degrees of opposition to construction of a 650-student school. Most school board members said they needed to think about it.

Clearly, not one of the 10 elected officials involved in the discussion strongly endorses the idea.

So, they should stop. Let the budget process for 2017-18 conclude without making a hasty decision.

Then, the two boards should start fresh and meet as often as it takes to reach consensus well before fiscal 2019 budget deliberations next winter.

Ms. Grove quite properly noted Thursday that school board members have responsibility for developing sound plans in the best interests of students, and the supervisors have responsibility for funding those programs.

The school board contends it has done its job. But, despite acknowledging the need to do something, the supervisors haven’t bought the plan.

The supervisors wonder about the sudden urgency. They bristle as school officials repeat the new assertion that cost escalation will add $5 million to the project unless it starts in the next four months.

Mr. Butler also questioned the obvious signs of neglected maintenance that he and two other supervisors saw during tours of Taylor and Warrenton middle schools last week.

School officials Thursday admitted that they, assuming a “modernization” project would start soon, have deferred some maintenance to focus on instruction. Translation: With money tight, the school system has shifted funds to give employees raises in recent years.

Superintendent David Jeck said the new school budget, which takes effect July 1, dramatically will increase maintenance funding.

Ultimately, many would call it irresponsible for the two boards to make a decision costing tens of millions of dollars and affecting thousands of people for the next 50 years in a matter of days. And, it essentially has come down to that.

Additionally, if the boards agree on a plan, it would raise questions about the county-owned Warrenton Community Center, which might need demolition to make way for a new school, and Warrenton Middle, which might get used for other purposes. Both prospects come with significant costs.

One could argue that the two boards should have met last summer, before the Middle School Modernization Advisory Committee started its work. The two boards could have toured the old schools, looked at the big picture and reviewed the county’s financial situation, including debt.

They could have come up with an acceptable price range and funding plan for a solution — as a typical consumer would do before buying a car or a house.

On the other hand, school board Chairman Gorg said the advisory committee reached consensus on a potentially controversial issue: the prospect of consolidating Taylor and Warrenton. And, the last two weeks have clarified the boards’ positions as they debated the possibilities.

So, start with lessons learned and look for things on which they can agree. Develop a solution within a budget.

It can’t go unsaid that enrollment will continue a slow, steady decline over the next decade, according to the school system’s projections, which have proven quite accurate in recent years. Meanwhile, the county’s five middle schools have capacity for another 800 students.

Mr. Gorg and his school board colleagues point out that their proposal focuses on the quality of instructional space, not the number of seats.

We elect representatives to deal with such issues.

Already, however, statements made in the joint board meetings have raised hackles across the table.

Making a quick, potentially regrettable decision by March 23 would deepen a divide between two boards that, since the November 2015 election, have rebuilt a civil relationship after years of mutual distrust.

Everyone involved points to the confusing, convoluted, confrontational deliberations that resulted in Fauquier High School’s renovation a few years ago.

The recent debate, however, somehow sounds familiar.
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Uh....No · March 13, 2017 at 9:38 am
Perhaps the last board(s) should have had the forethought and sight to engage this project when the economy was tanked.

Never put yourself in a position where you "have to have it"! Or, you're gonna have to pay too much.

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