August opening doubtful for new school

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Though the county has given the Grayson County school system its backing to put out bids for a turning lane that would complete the Grayson Highlands School in the western end of the county, the timetable may be too late to meet the Aug. 9 opening date.

Grayson Director of Personnel Chad Newman reiterated Monday night that the building is substantially complete. Work is being done to replace the guttering damage that occurred this winter and the sewer system is finishing up.

Newman provided good news on the turning lanes and noted that, in communications with the county, the school system has been given support to put this final piece of the project out to bid.

The school system is having the plans revised to reflect the work that has been completed to date and, once those plans are complete, bids will be received. Newman said he expects to know within the next few weeks where the project stands financially.

The county board of supervisors had originally limited the school system to $15.3 million for Phase I of its long-term facilities improvement plan, but later reinstated the original amount of $16.3 million.

School personnel have estimated the cost of the project — which includes additions and renovations at Fries Middle School — at roughly $17.3 million.

Though the board has not officially approved the spending, they have begun seeking funding up to $18.3 million — which would include $1 million the county spent to make interest-only payments on the original loan.

“We appreciate the county supporting us on that,” School Board Member Gary Burris said Monday night.

Vice Chairman Shannon Holdaway then asked about the timeline for putting the project out to bid, accepting those bids and building the turning lanes.

Newman said the county has only expressed support to bid the project — not to accept a bid.

Holdaway pointed out that, without approval from the supervisors, the school board could not accept a bid.

The bidding process typically takes two or three weeks and Newman said the estimate is three to four weeks of construction time, assuming good weather.

At this point, the county is looking at a total of eight to 10 weeks from requesting bids until the project is complete, Holdaway said. To be finished in time for the school to open Aug. 9, the project would have to start in early June.

If the supervisors did not address the issue at their meeting yesterday, Thursday, it would be June before they could approve the funding, and therefore too late to complete the project before Aug. 9.

“It’s going to be close,” Newman said.

“They meet the second week of June… it’s not even close,” Holdaway responded. “If they don’t approve the money [Thursday] we’re going to be backed into a corner and have money approved post our ability to complete the project.”

Holdaway felt that, even if supervisors discussed the issue, there was little hope of them voting to pay for the project. “If I understood the last meeting, they don’t have the money.”

The county is operating on what is believed to be a negative cash balance. With a projected real estate tax increase from 34 to 49 cents on the levy, the county is hoping it will be more attractive to banks when seeking a $4 million line of credit and negotiating new terms on the funding of Phase I — up to a possible amount of $18.3 million.

The news was mixed on the Fries construction project, as well.

School Maintenance Supervisor Roy Anders provided his monthly update on the project and said work is progressing smoothly.

When asked about the timeline for completion at FMS, Anders said the contractors are shooting for the end of August.

Newman added that the school system is working with Blue Ridge Construction to handle some work in-house on the Fries project and continues to negotiate what the school system can do to benefit the county financially.

When asked if the Aug. 9 deadline was going to be met, Newman said it remains unclear. He expects to have a better idea by the June school board meeting.

“Worst-case scenario right now, we might be looking at a move over Labor Day,” Newman said. “If the weather holds out, it’s only going to benefit us and help us catch up.

Board Member Wynn Combs asked if the plan still includes new furnishings and all things originally proposed when funding was sought.

“With taking on some of the work in-house, it is going to give us the ability to provide everything that was in the original plan,” Newman said. “That’s our goal… to keep everything intact.”

Holdaway expressed that the school board should participate in any discussions that may come up to change any of the original plans.

“That would be our goal, to include everyone involved,” Newman said.

For now, it appears the school system will once again sit and wait to see if the schools will open in time for the new school year.

Grayson Highlands was originally projected to open at the beginning of the current school year, and later set to open this past January.

An unusually cold winter and near-record snowfall hampered the progress greatly there and in Fries. The original deadlines came and went.

The school system had budgeted for the closing of Mount Rogers Combined School and Bridle Creek Elementary — which did not happen — in the current budget and is budgeting for the additional closure of Providence Elementary next year.

If Grayson Highlands and Fries schools do not open on time this fall, the county would lose additional money by operating facilities and are significantly less efficient to run on a day-to-day basis than the new school.

More information on the projects is expected at the June 14 meeting of the school board.