Middle school debate continues

Thirty people spoke their minds Monday night on the proposed construction of a new consolidated middle school during a meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors.

Comments went on for nearly two hours, with 28 speakers expressing wholehearted support for the new school, while two others expressed concerns.

Sandy Dowdy Singleton told the supervisors that she would love to see a new school constructed. However, she said, the county is already in millions of debt and she isn’t comfortable with the present amount of debt along with the projected reduced enrollment figures and no prospects for any significant growth in the county’s tax base.

“As a taxpayer and owner of two properties in Robinson Tract, which I tried to accumulate to help me with my retirement, this would significantly hurt me if taxes go sky high, as it would others,” Singleton said.

“We would all be more confident if the people had a direct voice with something so expensive,” she added.

Singleton also noted her concerns over the proposed location of the school, offering figures from the Virginia State Police from 2011 to May of this year in which 657 accidents had been reported on Lee Highway resulting in 313 injuries and 7 fatalities.

“There is a time and place for everything. The time for a new school is not now,” she closed, urging maintenance to be “stepped up.”

Amy Dawson told the supervisors that research shows students achieve at a higher level when they attend well-designed schools.

“Well-designed means schools that are well-lit, thermally controlled, with good air quality and ventilation to accommodate the student population and that are safe and accessible,” Dawson said.

“There are classrooms at Pulaski Middle School where students are not allowed to go into due to structural changes that are dangerous or could become dangerous,” she said.

Dawson explained that in an area near the gym a classroom is no longer in use due to the shifting of the floor.  Part of the floor in the room near the entrance, she said, is higher than the rest of the floor.

“It has created a fairly large bulge in the floor and leads out into the hallway where pedestrian traffic is located,” she said.

The boy’s locker room located below the area is no longer used due to those structural shifts, she noted.

Dawson said all schools in the county had attained full accreditation, except two – both middle schools.

She said test scores at the middle schools are lower than they are for students in elementary and high school.

“These facilities do have an impact on how well students do on individual standardized tests like the SOLs,” she said.

“Pulaski and Dublin middle schools are sub-standard facilities and our students shouldn’t be educated in such buildings.  You (supervisors) can change this,” she concluded.

Lora Covey brought her son, Mason to the podium to address supervisors.

“I think it is important for you to put faces with the students who are the future of this county and who your decision makes a difference to,” Covey said.

Noting there is a difference between maintenance and capital improvements, Covey said the safety and fire hazards at both middle schools are “too numerous to mention during my three minutes of speaking time.”

She had criticism for both the school boards and boards of supervisors of recent years for continuously pointing fingers of blame at each other during years of discussion on a new middle school.

“That’s why we’re not further along in the process than we are today. It is my belief this has to stop,” Covey said.

She said the reasons for a new middle school have been known for many years.

“The decision to raise taxes is never an easy one,” Covey said, asking why taxes hadn’t been raised in past years with the goal of building a new middle school in mind, to ease the burden of raising taxes.

“I urge the board to stop the blame game and work with the current school board to create a positive environment for all students of the county,” Covey said, noting she wants the supervisors to fund the construction directly and not ask for a referendum.

Michael Reis urged the board to act quickly to approve the construction, over fears a delay of several months could lead to higher interest rates and cost the county even more.

Ashley Bowman agreed, saying there is no need to delay the inevitable.

Bowman said she knows the supervisors have seen photos of the current conditions at the schools showing ceilings that are falling down, broken bathroom fixtures, masking tape on multiple windows and signs saying, “Danger – Contains asbestos fibers. Avoid creating dust.  Cancer and lung disease hazard. Avoid breathing airborne asbestos fibers.”

“We’re sending our most precious gifts into schools full of health hazards every day.  That’s not okay for our county,” Bowman said.

Mike Moore told the supervisors he supports construction of a new middle school, but he thinks building a new high school makes more sense.

“People look at high schools not middle schools when they do internet searches on where to live,” Moore said. “Colleges look at high school transcripts.  It would take more money now and more planning, but in the long run it would be more effective for students,” he said of building a high school.

Jean Anderson questioned the increase in debt to build a new middle school when you consider the county is still paying off the last schools it built.

“These young people are fine with a new school, but the burden will be on us older people,” she said.

Another speaker said the board should just approve the school and not worry about taxes, although she admitted she isn’t yet paying taxes.

“Show you care about the students, because none of us think you do right now,” she told the supervisors.

Later during the meeting, Draper District Supervisor Dean Pratt bristled at that comment.

“It really bothers me that some people think that we do not care about the students of Pulaski County,” Pratt stated. “Let me tell you, I care deeply for the students along with the citizens of this county. When we (supervisors) sit up here we have to take care of everybody. This board has not done anything unnecessary to slow this process.”

During Monday’s meeting, the board voted to acknowledge receipt of the school board’s recently approved resolution asking the supervisors to either directly fund construction of a new middle school – or to at least ask the Circuit Court to order a referendum in November on the issue.

Supervisors Chairman Andy McCready said the supervisors now have to have talks with their bond attorney and the folks who sell the bonds.

He explained that when bonds are issued, “there is not one bond for, say, 20 years, but rather 20 one-year bonds – each with its own interest rate.”

McCready said the board of supervisors, working with the school board, had three years earlier sold bonds to refinance the schools’ debt.

“We went out and sold bonds. Our bond counsel talked to no less than 60 banks and brokerage houses” to get the best rate, McCready said.

He said the interesting thing about selling bonds is that, once you get the lowest rate, you can go back to the lowest bidder and negotiate an even lower rate.

“That’s exactly what we did and we were able to take about another quarter-point off the rate,” McCready said, thus saving the county money.

He noted the county was able to do that because of its financial strength and the guidance gained from staff and boards of supervisors through the years.

“That’s how you get the best rates,” he stated.

McCready said the school board had offered up one method for financing a middle school [through the Virginia Public Schools Authority], “but we can use other methods and potentially save more money.”

“We will hold one – possibly more work sessions on the issue,” McCready said. “We will do our due diligence to make sure we get the best rate. I think everyone here wants us to get the best rate.”

The board’s first work session is set for today (June 30) at 4 p.m. in the IT conference room at the Maple Shade Plaza.

-By MIKE WILLIAMS

The Patriot