Grayson extends school project

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE  — Calling it a “bailout” for the local school system, the Grayson County Board of Supervisors will allow the school board to spend up to $16.3 million on Phase I of its facilities improvement plan — but it still won’t be enough.

Supervisors’ Chairman Larry Bartlett brought the school board’s request to his fellow supervisors during their meeting Thursday night.

“At this point in time, the school system advises us that unless we [authorize further spending], they are going to run out of money in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Last December, supervisors approved a resolution declaring the school system “shall not in any way contribute in excess of the restated total project costs” of $15.7 million after county officials declared that grant money obtained to help fund the school’s water system from Troutdale should have actually reduced the total project cost by $600,000.

Interim financing was obtained in the amount of $16.3 million, therefore supervisors felt the school system should not spend more than $15.7 million.

At that time, Grayson Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas estimated the total costs of Phase I to be in the range of $17.9 million.

Thursday night, board members were presented with a letter from School Board Chairwoman Misty Cassell.

“As the [school] board has clearly communicated to the supervisors, the board will be required to imminently suspend work on Phase I projects because of the $15.7 million funding limit imposed by the supervisors’ December 2009 resolution,” Cassell said in the letter.

She continued to ask supervisors to return to their commitment to spend $16.3 million, thus giving the school board “additional time and additional construction work on the projects.”

She added, however, that restoring the $600,000 would not be enough.

While the school board appreciates the restoration of funding, Cassell said the board “must emphasize that this amount will not provide sufficient funding to complete the projects as contracted for and it still represents an overall decrease in the supervisors’ funding commitment as authorized in its July 2008 resolution.”

The resolution in question refers to the idea that, while the estimate for Phase I was $16.3 million, the supervisors agreed at that time that if the bids for the plan deviated by more than 10 percent from that estimated amount, it would require reauthorization by the supervisors.

With the additional 10 percent, the school system had an amount of $17.9 million to complete Phase I of the improvement plan before requesting any further approval — the very same amount school officials are now estimating the facilities plan will cost.

If the decision had not come at last Thursday night’s meeting, Cassell said the school board would have been “obligated by law to confine its spending to the existing $15.7 million limit” and that it “may well be required to take action by no later than [today, Monday] to notify its contractors to suspend work.”

Cassell concluded by saying the school board would work with the architect and contractors to provide the supervisors with an update on the degree to which the Phase I projects can be completed with restoration of the $600,000 to the school construction fund and with a time estimate as to when the projects will progress to the point that the $600,000 will be exhausted.

Supervisor Joe Vaughan asked if the $600,000 was restored, what would it include.

Sweet said it would encumber all costs associated with Grayson Highlands School and complete it in its entirety. It would then allow further work to continue on renovations and additions to Fries Middle School.

When asked about the cost for the turning lanes, Sweet said that is included within the $16.3 million, as well.

“As of tonight, in order to continue building for roughly the next six weeks, we need to authorize up to the loan amount, which is $16.3 million,” Bartlett said.

Vice Chairman Doug Carrico then motioned to increase the amount. After a long pause, Supervisor Brenda Sutherland seconded the motion.

Before calling for a vote, Supervisor Mike Maynard had a few comments.

Maynard said he felt — in a sense — that the county has been “put over a barrel” which in turn did the same to taxpayers.

“I’m disappointed,” Maynard said. “I don’t think it’s good for the taxpayer and I don’t think it’s good for the kids.”

Bartlett added that he felt the supervisors were now in the position that they have to “bail” the school board out after not being provided information to show the credibility of the decisions made during the building process.

“That’s exactly where I feel that we are... and by we, I mean the citizens of Grayson County are required to bail this school board, school administration out of it’s poorly managed project,” Bartlett said.

With no further discussion, supervisors voted unanimously to authorize Sweet to draft a resolution allowing the school system to spend up to $16.3 million and gave Bartlett authority to sign the resolution.

Thomas previously told The Gazette that the cost at Grayson Highlands was greater than expected for several reasons.

“At the time of the bid, steel and other construction materials were at all-time highs,” she said last December.

The school system also incorporated requests to design the school to serve the entire community with a regulation size gym, a large cafeteria area, a wellness center and a large generator so the school could serve as an emergency shelter if needed.

“In addition, VDOT has required the school system to construct turn lanes and correct the crown of the existing road for a cost of approximately $614,000,” Thomas continued. “Despite unexpected costs and upgrades to the school, we were able to produce an excellent facility at a relatively low cost.”

In fact, Thomas said Grayson Highlands was “actually the lowest cost per square foot school in the state of Virginia for facilities in construction in 2007-08.”

Although bids for FMS came in well under budget, Thomas added that several additional expenses to include upgrades to the cafeteria and roadway, as well as removal and replacement of water lines, sewer lines, an oil tank and unsuitable soil have added to total costs of the project.