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Council wants more info on new school plan

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By Shaina Stockton, Staff

The Galax Planning Commission will have a second opportunity to vote on a recommendation for the approval of a conditional use permit for Galax City Schools to build a new elementary school in the city.
A request for a possible expansion of the school system brought a substantial divide within the community last month. A lengthy discussion about the construction of a school on a property located off of Kipling Lane and portions of Kenbrook Drive resulted in a split vote from the planning commission.

A public hearing on March 24 gave council members and representatives of the school system an opportunity to hear concerns from citizens, and neighbors were vocal about their disinterest in sharing their property borders with a school.
Their comments, along with the school system’s lack of a site plan, left council members with several questions.
Council voted to table the discussion for a later date, and asked Schools Superintendent Bill Sturgill to provide a site plan for reconsideration.
At the April 14 meeting, Sturgill presented council members with a site plan addressing several concerns that were brought up last month. “We took a lot of information from the public — the individuals that spoke here, and the community — and here are a few of the changes that we’ve made,” Sturgill said, directing the board’s attention to a projected image showing an overhead map of the Kipling Lane area.
“As you can see, we’ve outlined some entrances and exits to the property, in an attempt to share the burden of traffic on neighbors that surround the property. Here, we are trying to create a concept of parent pick-up with one way in and one way out,” he said. This would also serve to separate parent pick-up traffic from buses.
The site plan showed access off residential Kenbrook Drive, instead of busy Fries Road.
Several neighbors who spoke at the March 24 meeting voiced their concerns about losing their privacy, as well as their view of the local wildlife. To address this issue, Sturgill pointed out that several areas around the proposed school have been mapped off as conservation areas, and would not be touched during construction. He also highlighted a number of spots on the map between the school and the surrounding neighborhood, where heavy vegetation would be strategically placed to create “buffer zones” between the properties.
“I can’t stand here and say that [a new school] won’t impact the community and neighborhood… but right now we have three schools in the middle of downtown Galax, and we try to be the best neighbor we can be,” Sturgill said. “We listen to concerns, we adjust parking and lights, we pick up trash around the site… we try to make it a point to be good neighbors, and we would continue that regardless of where we build a new school.”

Questions About Plan
“Has the building been shifted down some from the original plan?” asked council member Margo Crouse.
“I don’t believe so,” said Sturgill as he examined his notes. “I’d also like everyone to keep in mind that this site plan is a concept for a K-8 school. We wanted to represent the largest footprint we would possibly have,” he said, noting that the site plan could be smaller, depending on what concept was chosen later on. “But the building would not be any larger than this.”
“I understand there was a study [about the current elementary school],” said Vice Mayor Willie Greene. “That is one of the concerns I’ve been asked about in the community. Why not build a new school there [where the existing one is]?”
“A study was done in 2000, and it provided info as far as upgrading the systems at the elementary school. But at the end of the day, the study recommended that we build a new elementary school.”
He further explained that the existing school has no air conditioning, which makes the upper floors extremely uncomfortable during the hotter months. The school also needs upgrades for its technology, structure, parking and parent pick-up.
The new school would also serve the need to expand as the GES student body increases. “The age of the building in that study was referenced as a building that was not ideal for expansion,” Sturgill said.
“And the site plan you are looking at is around 20 acres?” Greene asked.
Yes, replied Sturgill.
Greene: “And what is at the elementary school now?”
Sturgill: “About 10 acres.”
And if the new school does turn out to be a K-8 school, what will the existing middle school be used for, asked Greene.
“We would use that area to create more space for the high school,” said Sturgill.
“Another concern that I also heard about was traffic. Will there be any kind of study performed for this project?” asked Greene.
Sturgill confirmed that he and City Manager Keith Barker had discussed the need for a traffic analysis from the Virginia Department of Transportation. “Moving into the development phase of this project, that would help drive whatever concept we go with,” he told the vice mayor.
“Would it be feasible to allow cars and buses into the school one way, and then out different ways?” asked Crouse.
“Preferably, you’d like to separate buses and cars, for safety reasons,” replied Sturgill. He further explained that traffic could become an issue, since some parents arrive as early as 2 p.m. to pick up their children, even though the students aren’t let out until 3 p.m.
“Let me just say that council appoints the school board members and the members hire the staff, so I have all of the confidence of the people we have appointed to serve. But that brings me to my next question: will the city have to raise taxes to buy the property?” asked Greene.
“No sir,” Sturgill assured. “In the past, the city allowed the school system to create a capital account, where we could move our funds at the end of the year. The purchase of the property would come from this account, and it would not require any additional tax money.”

Council’s Concerns
Hearing these answers, a few council members took a moment to express their concerns about the project.
“It’s hard to disagree that we need a better system, but I’m still not convinced that we have to move away from downtown,” commented council member Robert Lazo. “Frankly, I’m not sure how we will pay for it. I understand that the purchase will come from your capital account, but it will be a number of millions to build a new school. I’m not sure we have projections that things are expanding so dramatically, so there’s not a big surge. And, I like the idea of remaining central [by keeping all three city schools close together].
“Also, the neighborhood tenants are so upset, and I still feel badly about that,” Lazo added. “You’ve been forthright in saying that it will impact the community, and the property owners had the opportunity to know [that this was a possibility], but this is still a school in their backyard. We do have a need for a school for our kids, but we also need to respect the property owners,” he told Sturgill.
“This is such a controversial issue, and I feel that it needs more study,” said council member Sharon Plichta. “The planning commission did an in-depth study and did not approve. We have so many questions out there and we need more time,”  
Plichta made a motion to send the item back to the Galax Planning Commission for a second attempt at a recommendation.
“What would be required of that?” Mayor C.M. Mitchell asked Barker.
“I will have to check and see if we have to go through the advertisement process. If we had to do that, we could bring this back by the first meeting in May,” Barker said.
Greene agreed with Plichta’s motion, noting that his opinion rides heavily on what the planning commission decides.  “We also appoint the planning commission and I have a lot of confidence in them,” he said.
“I always feel that there is a universal support on this project, if we had a site that we could agree on,” Lazo commented. “One of the city’s selling points is that our schools are all together… it’s one of the reasons why people want to come here.”
“I also want to commend you for going back and rethinking the site plan, and taking the comments at our last meeting and incorporating them into that plan,” Mitchell told Sturgill.
Seconded by Crouse, Plichta’s motion was unanimously approved.
City council will address the issue again at its May 12 meeting.

In other action, council:
• heard a presentation from Chris Brown of United Way Virginia Highlands.

• heard an update from Chris Shackelford of Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, about its program developments and the Public Art Committee.

• approved a request from James Goad for permission to operate a taxi service in Galax. A recommendation to approve Goad’s request came from Galax Police Chief Rick Clark.

• tabled a resolution regarding the governor’s budget, as council members wished to work on the verbiage to express their concerns about not having a state budget in time to plan the city’s spending plan.
“We want to encourage our state officials to adopt a state budget as quickly and judiciously as they can,” said Mitchell.

• approved a request to establish a localized Building Code Board of Appeals. Building Official Terry Atwell had spoken to five Galax citizens about being appointed to the board: Dr. Jim Adams, Ron Catron, Kevin Heath, Scott Larrowe and David Wilson.

• approved an amendment for the fiscal year 2014 budget, allocating an extra $47,000 from the Virginia Department of Transportation for new radios for the public works department and a new building for equipment storage.

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