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Mecklenburg County elementary school upgrades on hold / March 22, 2017
Major renovations of Mecklenburg County’s aging elementary schools will be put on hold as officials strive to learn more about what it will cost to build Mecklenburg’s new combined high/middle school complex.

The Mecklenburg County School Board was told to scrap immediate plans for upgrades to the elementary schools during a Thursday meeting of the Joint Education Committee in Boydton. County Administrator Wayne Carter suggested it would be at least two years before officials have a solid cost estimate for the new countywide school complex for students in grades six-12.

The admonition to trustees came from both Carter and county supervisor Claudia Lundy following a presentation by Brian Dalton, school maintenance supervisor, during Thursday’s joint education committee meeting.

The education panel is made up of three members from the School Board — Glenn Edwards, Lindell Palmer and Wanda Bailey — and three from the Board of Supervisors — Lundy, Glanzy Spain and David Brankley. Carter and Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols also sit on the committee.

Dalton’s presentation detailed the poor state of water and sewer service at Clarksville, Chase City and La Crosse elementaries, as well as failing boilers, inadequate climate control systems and poor lighting, among other woes. His presentation called for spending an estimated $20 million on building upgrades “that will last the next 20 years.”

In turn, Lundy and Carter were adamant that the Board of Supervisors would not sign off on such an expensive program.

“You’re asking to add about another $20 million to the debt service and I just don’t see it flying,” said Carter. “That’s another five cents [to add to the tax rate] and I don’t see any support for that on the board.” Carter continued, “Our board has said they’re willing to finance the $90 million [for the high school-middle school complex] and we need to look at that debt service before we look at anything else. I think that’s reasonable since we don’t know what the bids are going to come back as or anything else or what interest rates will be.”

Lundy added that she, too, couldn’t foresee supervisors agreeing to fund millions in elementary school upgrades. “They’re going to have to wait because our main priority is to build this high school, and we have not moved a shovel of dirt yet,” said Lundy. “Until we do that, everything else is going to have to be on hold. I can tell you that.”

Dalton had been tasked with creating a five-year maintenance program for all county school facilities. His presentation identified what he deemed the “critical needs” of the elementary schools: replacement of failing water and sewer lines, installation of energy-efficient LED lighting, improved ventilation of classrooms, upgraded HVAC systems to control indoor climate, better overall appearance of the buildings, enhanced security, maintaining the integrity of the aging building “envelopes,” and greater energy efficiency through the replacement of windows and doors.

Dalton’s plan also called on the school division, as money becomes available, to install new acoustical ceilings in the older portions of the elementary schools, cover asbestos floor tiles and implement a rotating schedule for painting the interior and exterior of each building.

The need for major renovations is acute and immediate, Dalton added.

“Our main needs lie in the mechanical side of the buildings. We can phase in the windows. We can paint at any time,” said Dalton. However, “we’re down to one boiler at Clarksville, because there’s holes in the tubes in the other one. The AC units that are [in the schools] are from early 2000 and as I explained to Mr. [Glenn] Edwards before, the scary part is that they were all put in in this county at the same time, and we’re already seeing them start to fail. So, as they start to fail, we look for it to be worse and worse and become more and more.”

Edwards suggested that Dalton meet with representatives of Trane, the third-party vendor that has an energy performance contract with schools, and revisit the scope of the EPC project. Edwards suggested only moving forward with items that can be funded from energy cost savings.

Spain asked Dalton to prioritize the list of projects by greatest need, and Lundy suggested the top priority should be the repair of water and sewer lines at La Crosse and Chase City Elementary schools.

At the end of the discussion, which was strained at times, Nichols sought to ease tensions between members of both boards. Speaking to supervisors, Nichol said, “It’s our responsibility to make you aware of what the various issues are, knowing that we have to come back with how the priorities are going to be implemented.”

Spain also sounded a conciliatory note: “We need to keep a good understanding of where you [school trustees] are and where we [supervisors] are, so we can walk down this road together.”

In other business, education committee members who recently traveled to Louisa and Goochland counties to tour consolidated school facilities in those communities shared their impressions from the visits. The consensus was that the Louisa school facility contained more of the features that local officials would like to see offered in Mecklenburg County.

Nichols said he particularly liked that school officials in Louisa County “kept in mind the needs of the whole community, not just the school, as they put that facility together.” He gave an admiring nod to the security details incorporated into the design.

Bailey said she “preferred the Louisa schools” and in particular, “the three-story concept with CTE [career technical education] on the first floor, academics on the second floor, and labs on the third floor. Even though there was quite a bit of glass, I think it was done in a way that was aesthetically pleasing and energy efficient.”

Bailey said she was hopeful that Mecklenburg County would not fall victim to an issue that has plagued Louisa County — lack of adequate outdoor sports arenas for both high and middle schoolers to hold games or practices simultaneously. “I hope we will plan adequately for outside facilities and not be hemmed in and be ready for athletic fields to support both schools.”

Other design aspects in Louisa that drew praise from committee members include the manner in which buses are routed behind buildings to pick up and drop off students, wide halls and multiple stairwells which eliminate bottlenecks, movable walls, and the flexibility to later expand the building.

Committee members were less impressed with the Goochland school complex, noting that it was dark and appeared to be “haphazardly designed.” Bailey also pointed out that the high and middle schools, though connected, had few shared resources. This appeared to defeat the reason for joining the two buildings, she added.

Nichols said he is not in favor of using a private-public educational partnership to produce a design for the county’s new high school-middle school complex. While such a process can be cost effective, since it relies on the use of pre-existing templates, Nichols said he would prefer that Mecklenburg tailor its new facility around the tenets of 21st century learning.

“What’s the old saying?” Carter said. “You’ve got to build a couple houses before you get it right. Well, we’ve only got one chance to get it right.”

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