Wise board to trim school renovations

Stephen Igo • Mar 17, 2007 at 1:27 AM

WISE - The Wise County School Board on Friday agreed to seek cuts of roughly 30 percent to nearly $110 million in recommended renovations for the county's six high schools before settling on a proposal to send to the Board of Supervisors.

The task before elected school officials is to pare the total project package down to around $77 million. The priority needs at each school - as rated and identified Friday by the school board - are largely mechanical issues such as HVAC, electrical, plumbing, disabilities compliance, windows and safety issues. Items such as recommended additions and expansions are threatened under the direction chosen Friday by the board.

Last April, supervisors passed a resolution asking the school board to conduct what school officials contend was a "comprehensive" study of the needs at each of the aging high school facilities. Four architectural and engineering firms hired to assess the needs at the schools provided a combined package of recommendations on Feb. 27 along with the total preliminary cost projection that sent the county into a swoon.

Supervisors have been particularly critical of the proposed renovations package, although school officials have said the recommendations provide what supervisors requested.

Friday's special workshop session, which began at 8 a.m. and lasted through the lunch hour, was facilitated by a familiar face.

Two years ago Wayne Worner, a former public school educator who retired after many years as a dean at Virginia Tech, was invited by the board to help the new, post-election panel get a solid start and manage public meetings in a reasonable manner. This time around, the Blacksburg-based Education Program & Services (EPS) consultant helped guide board members to refocus on the task at hand regarding high school facilities.

"When you look at where you were two years ago and where you are today it's almost a lose-lose situation," said Worner.

His sense of the situation is of a board caught between "strong community groups opposed to (school closures and consolidation) and maybe equally enthusiastic groups who worry about the financial realities."

Those two "powerful, competing interests," he said, create a "kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario that is par for the course anywhere in America where consolidation versus community schools crops up.

Worner said consolidation will remain an option and an issue, and school board members will just have to deal with it.

Worner also reminded school board members it is their legal duty under Virginia law to identify the needs of the school division and to communicate those needs, and if $110 million worth of improvements are needed, it is the board's responsibility to present that to the Board of Supervisors. Whether or not to fund the package is up to the supervisors, he said.

The consensus among elected school officials is that the county couldn't afford $110 million and they may as well prune the project proposals themselves.

Appalachia school board member Mark Hutchinson claimed the architectural and engineering firm in charge of that project study crammed recommended improvements "down the throat" of the Appalachia High School principal. The school doesn't need a new addition or new fiber-optic classrooms, he said, just basic mechanical improvements.

Cecilia Robinette, Betty Cornett, Phillip Bates, Margaret Craft and, to some extent, Board Vice Chairman Kyle Fletcher indicated they weren't so keen to cut recommended additions and other improvements from the schools in their districts.

Worner said the risk with considering cuts is to pit communities against one another.

Leading the discussion, Worner helped the board identify three options: present the $110 million proposal as is to the Board of Supervisors, make cuts and present the revised proposal to supervisors, or ask communities to come up with their own recommended cuts and advise the board.

The school board chose the second option.

Worner did not permit the consideration of a fourth option - consolidation and the construction of new, fewer schools - until the final stage of Friday's workshop.

Bates and Cornett said that option must be given consideration.

"There is another option," Bates said. "That is one school, two schools, three schools."

Hutchinson said there is no way the current makeup of the board would ever close schools, adding that he will never vote to close the community schools.

Cornett said from her own research, a new high school housing over 1,000 students could be built for around $30 million. The total high school population in Wise County is less than 2,200, including seventh-graders at two of the county's six high schools.

Worner said he is familiar with a brand-new high school in another part of Virginia that cost around $36 million and "it is a palace."

He said Cornett was pretty close to a reasonable cost estimate of a new high school of 1,000-plus students, though.

The upshot of that conversation was the clear implication that Wise County could build two modern, state-of-the-art high schools from the ground up for less, or at least no more, than the $77 million cost ceiling the school board decided to pursue on Friday for basic improvements to all six existing facilities.

Worner called the consolidation option "the gorilla in the closet" that cannot be ignored, and made a point of eventually not allowing it to be ignored on Friday, either.

"You know you could do it," he said of consolidation and building new facilities. "But it's not clear you have the political will to do it."

Board Chairman Barry Nelson charged each school board member with getting input into revisions from their particular school principals, teachers, students and community members. Otherwise, the criteria as established Friday would focus largely on basic mechanical improvements and kick to the curb other improvements recommended by architects.

School Superintendent Greg Killough said he will meet with representatives of the four firms next week and pass along the direction the board is taking so they can begin adjusting to the revised scope of the project.

Killough also advised that some schools may not be able to make 30 percent worth of cuts.

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