Jan 16, 2024

Price tags take center stage ahead of joint meeting

It is perfectly normal to find it hard to get out of bed, but when kids start to develop some illness every morning to avoid going to school, it’s time to pay attention. Veuer’s Maria Mercedes Galuppo has the story.

On Tuesday, Lynchburg city and school leaders will have the first opportunity to sit across from each other to discuss the recently-released scenarios of the Lynchburg City Schools facilities master plan that could determine the future of school buildings in the Hill City.

Ahead of the meeting, several leaders on both sides are weighing in on the important decision-making factors of the plan, as well as what facets of the plan they are in support of.

In mid-July, LCS released four potential scenarios for the facilities master plan, with Deputy Superintendent Reid Wodicka saying at the time that the scenarios were “not necessarily final recommendations,” rather they were just “scenarios for the community to react to, or provide response and feedback for.”

The community did its part in voicing its opinion on the scenarios, as LCS reported last week during the school board’s finance and facilities committee meeting they received nearly 1,400 responses to a community survey, and about 200 people attended four community conversation sessions at local elementary school buildings.

In scenario one, in addition to rezoning to put students closer to home, it also recommends the demolition and rebuilding of Sandusky Elementary; renovations at Paul Munro, Linkhorne, R.S. Payne and Perrymont elementary schools; repurposing Heritage Elementary for alternative education; closing Fort Hill Community School; and various improvements for the other elementary school buildings.

Scenario two offers the fewest changes for the school division, only proposing rezoning for close-to-home; close or convert Dearington Elementary; renovate Linkhorne, Paul Munro, Perrymont and Robert S. Payne elementary schools; and other elementary building improvements.

Scenario three similarly includes the proposal for division-wide rezoning for close-to-home. It also proposes closing or converting T.C. Miller Elementary; closing Sandusky Elementary; renovating and expanding Perrymont and Linkhorne elementary schools; expanding Bedford Hills Elementary School; renovating Paul Munro and Robert S. Payne elementary schools; and more elementary building improvements.

Scenario four is the lone scenario that does not call for rezoning for close-to-home. It also proposes the closure of Paul Munro and Sandusky elementary schools, the closure or conversion of Dearington Elementary; renovating and expanding Linkhorne and Perrymont elementary schools; expand Bedford Hills elementary; renovate Robert S. Payne elementary; and other elementary school building improvements.

After receiving community feedback in July, the division released the estimated price tag of each scenario during the school board’s finance and facilities committee on Aug. 1.

The estimated 10-year capital cost and estimated operational savings in fiscal year 2030 for the full adoption of each scenario are as follows:

Scenario 1: $234.8 million; $1 million in savings

Scenario 2: $181.2 million; $3.7 million in savings

Scenario 3: $206.5 million; $4.5 million in savings

Scenario 4: $187.8 million; $5.1 million in savings

In addition to releasing the full scenarios, the division also produced options for safety and maintenance improvements only, four alterations of the scenarios that would fall short of “full-scale renovations,” Wodicka has said in the past. These changes would address security upgrades and major maintenance needs.

The estimated 10-year capital cost and estimated operational savings in fiscal year 2030 for just safety and maintenance improvements are as follows:

Scenario 1: $146.6 million; $1 million in savings

Scenario 2: $93 million; $3.6 million in savings

Scenario 3: $139.2 million; $4.5 million in savings

Scenario 4: $135.1 million; $5.1 million in savings

These price tags are surely to play a major part in the decision-making function between the two bodies.

Ward III City Councilor Jeff Helgeson, a longtime proponent of “right-sizing” the school division, told The News & Advance last week the four scenarios and their price tags are “non-starters.”

“The whole role is to make sure that we’re maximizing efficiency so we can save taxpayer resources,” Helgeson said. “The purpose with the declining enrollment is to be more efficient with the resources we have so we can look our taxpayers in the eye and say, ‘this is a good use of taxpayer dollars,’ not just spending more money.”

Asked how much he could see the city spending on the project, Helgeson said “there’s no way we’re going to say we’re going to spend $100 million ... not a chance.”

Helgeson suggested closing and consolidating more schools to reduce the number of buildings, and making the necessary improvements to the buildings that will be kept as a sufficient way to “maximize efficiency.”

“It’s a win for everybody,” he said. “It’s a win for our taxpayers because they’re spending less money not just building a new school or adding major wings to new schools, you’re actually consolidating. Using the capacity you have rather than just building new ones.”

On the contrary, Ward II Councilor Sterling Wilder said his concerns come from one reduced stream of revenue for the city by way of the real estate tax rate reduction earlier this year, as well as other members of council have “not been friendly towards public education.”

“With the reduction of revenue, you aren’t going to have an extra stream for emergencies or for building projects,” Wilder said. “It’s going to be very hard to set aside any funds for these building constructions.”

Ward I Councilor MaryJane Dolan echoed Wilder’s sentiments, quoting former Mayor Joan Foster, who said, “You can’t decrease your way to excellence.”

“The problem is, we don’t have the resources,” Dolan said. “When you cut [real estate] taxes by 22 cents and then all of the sudden you’re going to embark on this infrastructure for the schools, I just don’t know where the resources are going to come from.”

For Wilder, the most important factor is protecting schools that are a part of city neighborhoods, some of which are proposed to close in the four scenarios.

“Certain schools have strong historical significance in our community,” Wilder said. “Like Dearington, I wouldn’t want to see a school like that close. There is a lot of pride in that area for that school. Even Paul Munro, it’s a close-knit community with strong support from the parents and I’d hate to see that go.”

Dolan also mentioned the neighborhood school aspect will be a “very key point” for the two bodies to consider when it comes to making a final decision.

During one of the four community conversations about the scenarios, Wodicka said he’s a “strong believer in the importance of neighborhoods and the role they play in our lives.”

“What’s critical is that we find the balance between the investments that we can make and the critical nature that schools play in their neighborhoods every day.

“It’s not so much that it’s a school that sits in a neighborhood, it’s actually a school that is a part of that neighborhood and that has to be balanced when we make investments,” he added.

Superintendent Crystal Edwards said during the same meeting that a lot of the neighborhood school discussion comes down to recreating those relationships the teachers have with the students and families, even if the building is a little further away.

“I’d ask the question if I could take everything out of the school — the teachers, the people, the culture and the feel — and pop it into a new building somewhere else, would you be mad?” Edwards said. “And it’s like, no, you’re giving us a new building.”

“It may not be around the corner, but if we can recreate those relationships, that feel of ‘this is my new home’ even though now instead of being 0.2 miles away it’s 1.2 miles away, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

For what disagreements may come over the price tags, closing or consolidating schools, or building new ones, one proposal receiving rave reviews from the three councilors is the division’s close-to-home rezoning proposal.

Helgeson called the proposal “excellent,” using the example of the James Crossing apartments on Greenfield Drive, where the students are in the Heritage Elementary attendance zone, while there are numerous elementary schools closer as the crow flies, something Wilder acknowledged.

“Think about that lack of efficiency, not just in the buses going from there all the way to Heritage but think about the parents,” Helgeson said. “You know, one kid misses the bus, you can walk a half mile. It’s pretty hard to walk five-and-a-half miles across major city streets.”

Wilder cited a 1970s desegregation order the school division was under in regards to bussing, however Edwards said in April the division has made enough progress on that front to request unitary status, meaning they could be released from the order once they petition the court.

She said at the time that likely wouldn’t come until further into the process of the facilities master plan.

Assuming the city is fine under the law, Wilder said he would also be a proponent of the close-to-home rezoning proposal if the community believes it will be effective.

Tuesday’s joint meeting is expected to be the first of a few meetings between the two bodies on the facilities master plan, with Edwards telling the school board she hopes the two can find a consensus of things to move forward with.

According to Wodicka, a mid-fall decision could be possible.

The joint meeting of the school board and city council is set for 4 p.m. Aug. 8, at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, 300 Lucado Place in Lynchburg.

City council has canceled its regular 7:30 p.m. meeting on Tuesday to allow for more time to discuss the facilities master plan.

Bryson Gordon, (434) 385-5547

[email protected]

@brysongordon on Twitter

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It is perfectly normal to find it hard to get out of bed, but when kids start to develop some illness every morning to avoid going to school, …

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