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Sales tax bill faces final test in Senate

Vote expected Friday on levy for new high school

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Stevens promoted as Virginia Advanced Study Strategies (VASS) president


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$100 mil cost cap for proposed Mecklenburg County school complex is elusive goal / June 13, 2018
After tabling a vote on a final 2018-19 budget, the Mecklenburg County School Board received an update on plans for the consolidated high school/middle school complex at their June 5 meeting in Boydton.

Speaking on the budget, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols asked the board to hold off taking a vote until the administration has time to include actual funding numbers from the state. Final approval of the state budget came June 7, after a lengthy impasse in the General Assembly was finally resolved and Gov. Ralph Northam signed the budget bill.

On the matter of the new school complex, trustees summoned architect Billy Upton to Boydton to discuss possible next steps after being told by the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors that the school construction budget cannot exceed $100 million. Upton presented updated cost figures for a scaled-down facility that still exceeds the $100 million cost cap set by supervisors. The modified facility would cost between $8 and $14 million over the set budget.

The new plan for the facility, said Upton, consists of a two-story building for both the high and middle school wings, with shared services in the center, totaling over 323,000 square feet. There are two gymnasiums planned, one for the high school and a separate one for the middle school, and a separate weight/wrestling room for the high school.

The agriculture barn and working farm have been reduced to a “learning greenhouse” and there are several open areas, designated as “outdoor learning environments.”

Though specific classrooms have yet to be laid out, there is space planned for band, art and vocal music programs along a wing designated as the “tenth-grade house.”

The construction budget of $108 million includes more than $3 million to purchase the proposed school site on U.S. 58, across from Route 4 in the Baskerville area. Money is also set aside to improve access points to the property, relocate a fiber optic line that bisects the property and relocate a cemetery that lies there. Upton did not include expenses for running water or sewer lines to the school site or unanticipated excavation costs.

The price for the school complex jumps from $108 million to $114 million if the design includes two auxiliary gyms — one for the high school and one for the middle school — and adjustments such as enlarging the proposed stadium and field house are included.

As redesigned, the school would house up to 2,400 students — 1,300 for the high school and 1,100 for the middle school. The current student population will fill the school, leaving no room for growth without adding to the structure.

Upton told the trustees that the size of classrooms and other spaces are determined in part by design requirements set by the Virginia Department of Education. In his estimation, it would take at least $108 million to build a school that satisfies those requirements.

Nichols asked Upton to provide comparative drawings and cost breakdowns that he could take to business leaders and others who can help make the case for the additional $8 - $14 million that Supervisors say they will not cover.

Upton said if more money is not forthcoming, his only option is to reduce the size of the school buildings, something he does not recommend.

In other business, the School Board revisited the division’s policy on student backpacks. Last year, after being told school policy prohibited students from carrying backpacks into the classroom or in the halls, trustees voted to reverse the policy.

In discussion with Brian Matney, supervisor of secondary instruction, board members learned that the student handbook never contained any such prohibition. Matney said he was looking for guidance on what policy the trustees wanted to include in the student handbook.

The Safety Committee, comprised of members Rob Campbell and Kenny Johnson, suggested a ban on students carrying backpack inside the building.

Trustee Dale Sturdifen argued “we cannot live in a world of fear,” and for that reason he saw no reason to limit backpacks.

Teachers at Park View Middle School, in a petition sent to the Central Office, expressed opposition to such a backpack ban, and Matney said administrators at other schools shared a similar sentiment. For most, the issue is not one of security, but of space constraints. Large backpacks take up too much space in already crowded classrooms and hallways.

Sturdifen also asked fellow board members to amend the cell phone policy. Currently students are banned from using their phones unless authorized by a teacher for educational purposes. Sturdifen suggested such a policy was unenforceable with the advent of smart watches and similar high-tech devices. Therefore, it was more reasonable to allow students to use their phone during specified periods, such as lunch.

Matney said from his experience, cell phones were the “single greatest impediment to instruction,” and should be banned. One hundred percent of the student body at all schools have access to Chromebooks, he said, adding there is no need for students to use personal devices. Moreover, a strict ban is the norm in most employment environments, which is something students are being prepared to enter.

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