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Suffering sticker shock, Wise County School Board steps back from renovation plans - may consider fewer new schools

Stephen Igo • May 8, 2007 at 12:39 PM

WISE - The Wise County School Board stepped back from a leap into the pricey waters of the renovations pool on Monday and will at least take a look at building new, possibly fewer, schools.

Earlier this year four architect/engineering firms presented a $109.5 million total cost estimate to renovate the county's six aging high schools, five of them built in the 1950s. The sticker shock from that prompted the board to scale the projects down to a revised renovations package, now estimated to cost between $85 million to close to $90 million, depending on options chosen for St. Paul High School.

On Monday a move to send the revised renovations package to the county Board of Supervisors backfired. A motion by Mark Hutchinson of Appalachia and seconded by Board Chairman Barry Nelson, also of Appalachia, was supplanted by a substitute motion by Margaret Craft of Wise to take a look at costs associated with building new, possibly fewer, high schools.

Craft's motion passed on a 5-3 vote. In favor were Craft, Monty Salyer of St. Paul, Big Stone Gap representatives Betty Cornett and Cecilia Robinette, and Phillip Bates of Wise. Voting against were Hutchinson, Nelson and St. Paul's Kyle Fletcher, the board vice chairman.

Nelson still pushed the original motion to a vote that failed by the same split.

Bates and Robinette expressed concern that scaled-back renovations to the high schools would be inadequate for academic quality and a modern curriculum. Salyer said a DVD provided by the school administration of a walk-through of each school's current condition and needs should be shown on the local public access channel and give people time "to have a better understanding" of the full needs of each school.

Salyer was concerned that members of the public had no input into the cuts to the initial recommendations by architects that pared the project to no lower than $85 million. Salyer also said he believed Wise County could not afford an $85 million revised renovations package any more than it could $109.5 million.

Cornett wanted to wait for a Virginia Tech study, to be conducted this summer, of the impacts a new electricity generating plant to be built outside St. Paul. While the plant would infuse the county with significant new tax revenue, that feature might also adversely affect the county's composite index.

That is the formula the state uses based on a locality's ability to pay when figuring out state support for school divisions.

Wise County will get about $40 million from Richmond for schools next fiscal year, nearly $2 million more than the current year. Wise County taxpayers will pony up nearly $15 million for the school division next year, an increase of roughly $750,000 above the current year. The difference between state funds and local funds for schools indicates the favorable composite index Wise County currently maintains in Richmond.

Nelson, Fletcher and Hutchinson expressed frustration over the move to momentarily derail the renovations plan. Although school administration staffers will pursue the new school/consolidation information sought by Craft and others, Nelson said the administration "works to the bone" the way it is and there will be a cost one way or another.

"Any information you get, you're going to pay for it," Nelson said. "If not money, then time (spent gathering the information) by the staff."

Salyer said it won't hurt to take a step back and get more information on the high schools' dilemma and be better prepared when presenting options to supervisors.

"I just do not think we are at the point to send an $85 million package to the supervisors," he said. "There will be questions asked, and I don't think we have those answers yet."

Concerns over the curricula, and equity of delivering academic options at all schools, consumed much of the debate. Hutchinson and Fletcher said there is a "core" group of required subjects needed for graduation and college preparation at all of the schools, and electives should be separated from the academic equity debate.

In a related matter, the board also heard a presentation by administration officials over class scheduling.

Secondary Education Assistant Superintendent Gene Rowland cautioned the board that changing to a new scheduling system from the current block scheduling, implemented in 1998, would be a difficult transition to make and not be a panacea for accommodating six renovated high schools rather than fewer, new schools. A traditional six- or seven-class day, as opposed to the "4x4" block scheduling now in use, allows fewer elective course opportunities.

The board was provided with the pros and cons of three different scheduling methods. Meanwhile, Rowland and Schools Superintendent Greg Killough said faculty input into the issue is vital. Rowland said six high schools dictate "a certain type of curricula" and consolidated, fewer schools would dictate yet another.

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