Wise County suffers sticker shock over $109M school renovation price tag

Stephen Igo • Feb 28, 2007 at 9:03 AM

WISE - After driving a stake through the heart of high school consolidation almost two years ago, Wise County went to bed Tuesday stalked by a menacing $109.5 million school renovation monster.

Preliminary cost projections to renovate Wise County's six high schools were revealed during a special session of the school board on Tuesday. The four architectural and engineering firms hired by the school board to conduct studies - with the scope of the projects provided by the board - submitted preliminary design recommendations for major renovations and additions for the six high schools, five of which are more than 50 years old.

School board member Cecilia Robinette said Wednesday she doesn't believe the county can afford the $109.5 million price tag of the projects.

"Our county cannot afford $109 million. ... The bottom line is our children must have a quality education. The question is, what do you do to provide a quality education with the money we have?" Robinette said.

The money could, of course, come from taxpayers. But Virginia Meador, a member of the Wise County Board of Supervisors, said there has been no talk of a property tax increase to cover the annual payments funding the school project.

"It would be so much, I don't think we could even imagine what it would be at this point," Meador said.

The total high school population in Wise County is a bit less than 2,200, including seventh-graders who attend St. Paul and Appalachia high schools. The division-wide per-student cost of a $109.5 million makeover for the six schools, based on 2,200 students, works out to about $50,000.

"You can make numbers do just about anything you want them to do," said Ron Vicars, the school division's finance director.

Statistical validity of current enrollment to total cost is an equally valid perspective by taking into account generations of students over a 30-year period, he said, so the per-student cost dwindles to negligible over a period of time.

Vicars suggested applying each high school's current enrollment toward the projected renovations cost estimate at each of their schools.

"That might be a better way of looking at it, rather than just the overall totals," he said.

J.J. Kelly High School in Wise, primarily because of the new gymnasium envisioned for the facility as part of its upgrades, is the most expensive overhaul of the bunch at around $30 million in 2008 dollars. Current enrollment at J.J. Kelly is a bit over 500, so that works out to a per-student renovations tab of about $60,000.

Renovations and additions at Pound are estimated at about $16 million. There are 265 students at Pound, so that works out to a renovations cost of around $60,377 per student. Coeburn had 391 student as of Jan. 31, which works out to around $45,500 per student for a $17.8 million estimated renovation.

Powell Valley in Big Stone Gap has a current enrollment of 514 students, so its nearly $20 million project works out to a per-student cost of about $38,700.

Appalachia's $18.6 million makeover carries a $62,000 per student tab based on current enrollment of 300, and St. Paul's $7.2 million project provides a $36,000 per student cost based on current enrollment of 201 students.

Whatever course the county decides to take, a significant investment to address high school issues must be made sooner rather than later, said former school board member Robert Mullins. As the county's building inspector, he estimated the potential costs as things proceeded toward Tuesday's meeting and said he wasn't too surprised by the $109.5 million figure.

Mullins favored consolidation as a member of the school board. He served a 10-year stretch on the board, declining to run for re-election in 2005 based, in part, on public outcry that year in which the school superintendent - who had recommended closure of three high schools and urged consolidation - got fired.

The consolidation vs. renovations debate was the prime campaign issue during the 2005 elections, and the election of a slate of anti-consolidation candidates in 2005 pretty well killed off the consolidation movement as communities made clear their demands to keep their high schools.

Mullins said officials on Tuesday kept emphasizing that "everything is very preliminary" at this stage of the game, so the real debate has yet to begin.

"In my opinion, we need to focus on what can we offer with a 55-year-old elephant? We need to focus on academics as the nucleus and build around that," he said.

Supervisor John Peace II said his phone was ringing off the hook on Wednesday. Irate taxpayers were on the horn pleading for mercy from yet another costly study they - and Peace - say is dead on arrival.

"It's just fiscal Fantasyland," Peace said. "What they are infuriated about is the school administration spent $300,000 on something that's fiscal Fantasyland. I mean, if you can't afford it, it's out of the question. People are pretty irate about that. That's over a quarter of a million dollars on paperwork. And the sad thing is, (the Board of Supervisors approved the Public-Private Partnership Act) where taxpayers don't have to pay anything up front. Why aren't they doing it? Why aren't they using it?"

The PPTA is a state-sanctioned means for a local government to invite proposals for a potential project - whether that be an invitation to splash a fresh paint job to the interior of a county courthouse or build a school, or whatever the project may be - at a design/build risk option.

Architectural firms could have been invited by the school division to submit their ideas to renovate the schools in hopes of landing the job at no cost for preliminary studies such as those delivered to the school board on Tuesday at a price, he said.

"Fiscally, it's impossible," Peace said of the $109.5 million price tag. "I mean, it's almost three times our (entire annual county) budget. Put it this way - there's not a county west of Roanoke that can afford that, and not a county that would pay for a plan like that. If you can't afford it, it's not a plan. Since 1995 how much money has been spent on paperwork on this very thing? It's not an option because you can't afford it."

Board of Supervisors Chairman Ronnie Shortt said folks need to take a deep breath, relax and realize Tuesday was merely the opening round of what should be a polite conversation among family.

"I think it's a starting point," he said. "But we all must keep in mind the good of the children, what's best for the children, and yet be good stewards of our taxpayers' money."

Shortt said there have been no "what if" discussions among supervisors about a potential tax impact of school renovations.

"We were just like everybody else - just waiting on the numbers," he said.

"This is just the beginning," Robinette said. "I want our board to work closely with the Board of Supervisors. I feel like our boards can work well together because everybody has the best interests of the children at heart."

"Everybody has the same goal," Robinette added. "Everybody wants to do what's right. What's going to be our legacy? We want our children to have a good education, but we cannot afford $109 million, so you sit down and do the best you can with what you have."

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