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Upgrades sought at three Mecklenburg elementary schools

South Boston News
Architects for Mecklenburg County have developed a rendering of proposed elementary schools, with similar designs for the county’s three oldest facilities, at Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse.
SoVaNow.com / March 03, 2021


With construction work nearing the mid-point at Mecklenburg’s new consolidated secondary school campus in Baskerville, school administrators and trustees are looking at options for upgrading the county’s three oldest elementary schools.

Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse elementary schools were all built in four phases. Construction of the main building for each elementary was completed in the 1960s. Additional classrooms were added in the 1980s. In 2011, free-standing gymnasiums were built at each site. The final additions completed in 2013 included new library space and more classrooms.

A facilities study done by Richmond-based Ballou Justice Upton Architects over the past year recommends keeping the three schools at their current locations, but replacing the two oldest portions of the buildings at all three schools (the additions from the 1960s and the 1980s) with modern two-story structures that would attach to the 2013 classrooms.

The architects’ recommendations also call for construction at all three elementary schools to begin within a year of the school division vacating both Bluestone and Park View High School. Those sites could be used to temporarily house displaced elementary students, the architects suggest.

Classes will begin at the new consolidated high school/middle school in August 2022. The facilities team calls for students at La Crosse Elementary to move into Park View High School and students from Chase City and Clarksville to relocate to Bluestone High School by the start of the 2023/24 school year.

Brian Dalton, executive director of facilities and operations for MCPS, explained the rationale for these recommendations to members of the Joint Education Committee on Thursday, comprised of members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board.

Buildings constructed in the 1960s and even those in the 1980s often contain asbestos-laden products in the flooring and insulation, Dalton said. In addition, the sewer lines were cast iron and are now rusting, and the buildings’ HVAC systems do not meet current building standards as far as fresh air circulation, heating and ventilation. The technology and electrical components as well as designs aspects of the classrooms cannot accommodate many of today’s STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs.

The team of architects and engineers that completed the facilities survey concluded that it would be more cost-effective to demolish the older portions of each school and build anew rather than attempt to renovate existing spaces.

The team saw no reason to demolish either the 2011 gymnasiums or the 2013 library and classroom additions. In fact, both would be incorporated into the new design.

The specific recommendations from the study team call for the county to:

Demolish and replace existing 1960s and 1980s buildings with new facilities based on Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) guidelines. The new facilities will be equipped with updated spaces and current technologies.

Improve safety/security at entry vestibules and throughout the facility.

Provide ADA accessibility throughout the facility and site.

Enhance outside play areas.

Address site-related issues and constraints, including drainage and topography problems.

Provide safety and security improvements to address bus loading/unloading, faculty and staff parking, and parent drop off/pick up.

Dalton said the La Crosse Elementary School facility needs one other improvement not called for at either Clarksville or Chase City. La Crosse Elementary is the only one of the three schools that uses a septic system. The building is “busting at the seams” due to overcrowding which impacts the aging septic system. The school was also built on low ground which causes drainage problems and further taxes the septic system.

Any improvements to La Crosse Elementary would have to include connecting the school’s sewer lines to a public sanitary sewer system, Dalton said, and that could be costly because of the distance between the school and the nearest connection point.

The study team offered one suggestion to resolve the problems with La Crosse Elementary. They proposed closing down the school and constructing a second elementary school behind the existing South Hill Elementary school.

Dalton did not discuss this option with the members of the Joint Education Committee, though it was included in the summary paperwork provided to school trustees and supervisors.

Dalton said upgrades have been made at all three elementary schools over the past couple of years with respect to lighting, mechanical systems and security. These upgrades could be reused in the new buildings to reduce overall construction costs because “they were done with an eye toward future renovations,” he said.

Despite these improvements, Dalton said it would be better financially for the county to start work on the elementary schools sooner rather than later.

He reminded members of the Joint Education Committee that the plan is to relocate the elementary students into empty high school buildings instead of leasing expensive portable classrooms.

The longer a building sits vacant, the less likely it would be usable, Dalton explained. He equated a building to a living being — it needs to breathe and be used, or it will decay.

Bluestone and Park View high schools already have heating and ventilation issues, among other problems. Those problems will only worsen as the buildings sit idle. “You can only sustain empty buildings for so long,” Dalton said, adding that “it would be pushing it” to leave the high schools vacant for two years or more before using them as alternate school sites for elementary students.

He said you can turn the lights on and off, run the heat and AC and water intermittently, but it is not the same as using a building full time.

There are other reasons for upgrading all three elementary schools at the same time and quickly, Dalton said. The most obvious he said was “buying power.” Moreover, there are ongoing costs associated with keeping the high school buildings up and running. These costs continue to accumulate even if the school division is not using the buildings to educate students.

Dalton laid out the pros and cons for improving the elementary schools at one time as opposed to staggering the work.

The positive points for designing, bidding and building all three schools at the same time include:

» Eliminating partiality issues between schools.

» Reducing long-term maintenance costs of equipment at temporary school facilities.

» Maintaining continuity of curriculum at each school and provide improved safety and security.

» Saving on construction costs and furniture, fixtures and equipment costs and maintain uniformity for all three schools.

» Improved air quality at new schools and minimized health-related concerns.

» Designing under current code to minimize chances of environmental impact regulations changing during construction period.

The reasons against designing, bidding and building all three projects at the same time include:

» Need for earlier availability of funds.

» Expediting the time for relocation of students and support staff.

» Transportation logistical concerns for both buses and parents.

County Administrator Wayne Carter said cost was one more reason to oppose simultaneous construction. He said the county could not pay for new elementary schools for several more years without a “double digit tax increase” to cover the existing debt payments on the secondary school and the new debt service on the elementary schools.

Carter estimated the additional annual expense at around $7 million. “We would need a lot of good growth to fund this without a tax increase,” he said. When pressed, Carter acknowledged that Mecklenburg County has the option of asking local voters to approve a one cent sales tax increase. A local sales tax referendum to fund school capital improvements passed in neighboring Halifax County in 2019, and other counties have since gone to the General Assembly to obtain permission to hold their own voter referendums.

The tax would bring in an additional $4 million to $5 million annually in new revenue, Carter estimated. The money would, by law, be earmarked for school construction costs.

Dalton said there would be some benefits to staggering construction for the elementary schools, though he suggested the design work for all three be done as a single project. The benefit to building each school one year apart include:

» Eventually having all new elementary schools.

» Staggered construction that could lessen disruption at the facilities.

» Spreading out the cost of necessary funding for each school over time.

The reasons to oppose the idea include:

» Extending the period of construction for the schools.

» Claims of partiality from having to decide which school is first.

» Uncertainty that the uniformity of furniture, fixtures and equipment and built-in equipment can be maintained over the extended life of the project.

Carter said there were other factors that needed to be addressed, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which he foresees impacting the school division for several years. They include the enrollment numbers at each school as well as the impact on construction should social distancing factor into school design.

He pointed out that Mecklenburg County sheds two of its current long-term debt obligations between 2024 and 2028. Funds that had been going to pay for construction of South Hill Elementary School could be used, in part, to cover the new debt from the three elementary schools.

Still, that money is not available until 2028 at the earliest.

Supervisor David Brankley said he appreciated the update but was not ready to commit to the project. “Can we afford it?” Brankley asked. “We need to take a serious look at it and also the tax option,” referring to the sales tax option available to certain localities.

Supervisor Vice Chair Glanzy Spain agreed there is a need for new elementary schools but “don’t spend it unless you have it.” It was his way of telling School Board members that the county needs to review its financial position to determine if it can afford to essentially build three new elementary schools in the next three years.

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