New school yields to Fries renovations

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INDEPENDENCE — A turning lane that must be in place before Grayson Highlands School can open in August has reached a dead end, as school officials shift dwindling construction funds to Fries Middle School.

School leaders say the move could save millions of dollars in additional costs associated with securing the Fries construction site if work immediately stopped there.

The Grayson County School Board agreed March 29 to suspend a change order for a construction contract with general contractor Janes Vannoy & Sons to build the turning lanes. About $500,000 that would have been used to construct the lanes will instead be committed to the Fries project. The amount is enough to get the Fries project under roof, but not enough to complete all renovations.

The Grayson County Board of Supervisors has authorized the school system to spend up to $16.3 million on the school system's Phase I construction projects, which include the new school in Grant and an addition and renovations to the Fries school. Estimated costs for Phase I completion are about $17.5 million.

Grayson Highlands is near completion, with the exception of a turning lane off Virginia 16 that the Virginia Department of Transportation requires for safety reasons before the school opens. Cost of the turning lane is estimated at $614,000. (Around $130,000 already has been spent on preliminary work on the lanes.)

Fries Middle School, which was expected to absorb more students with the closure of Providence Elementary School at the end of this school year, is about 75 percent complete. Shifting available funds to Fries will get the new addition under roof, but will neither complete the interior nor furnish the classrooms, Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas said. The school system will need about $370,000 to complete the school.

In an April 2 memo to Grayson Administrator Jonathan Sweet, Thomas noted that the turning lane project will be suspended indefinitely to “complete as much as possible” at Fries.

Thomas also requested that the county “restore construction funding so the Grayson Highlands School turning lanes and Fries School project can be completed.”

School officials maintain that supervisors agreed to fund $16.3 million, plus 10 percent, — or $17.9 million in all — to complete Phase I construction.

County leaders have said that $16.3 million should have been more than enough to complete the projects, especially since the county — through a combination of grants and low-interest loans — is paying for the construction of a public water system in western Grayson that will supply the school with water.

Thomas said getting the Fries project under roof will save the school system — and ultimately, taxpayers — anywhere from $750,000 to $3 million in extra charges associated with stopping work immediately at Fries, according to school architects.

A combination of liability issues and contract commitments would require the school system to build fencing and guard railings and add lighting to secure the Fries construction site. Materials on the site would have to be stored somewhere so they wouldn’t be ruined or stolen. Exposed steel beams, left out in the elements, would have to be sandblasted if the project were to ever resume.

Also, since the school board already has signed a contract with general contractor Blue Ridge Enterprises for construction at the site, it’s possible the contractor could charge per day for the duration of the construction suspension.

The Fries renovation would eventually close Providence Elementary, a facility that needs major structural improvements and upgrades. A septic permit there is set to expire and won’t be reissued without a new $250,000 septic system. Also needed is a new furnace.

The school system won't have to pour more money into an aging facility if the renovations and additions at Fries are complete, Thomas said.

Sweet said that he and the board of supervisors understand the school system's reasons for shifting the funds, but wouldn't opine on the change. “The cost of the turning lane doesn't go away, and that aspect of the project doesn't disappear,” Sweet noted. “This is a different plan than what we originally understood, and it's one that doesn't complete or allow for the opening of the west Grayson school.”

Sweet said that he, supervisors and financial advisors are considering school construction funding options, but where the money will come from to pay for construction completion is “undetermined at this time,” Sweet said.

Financial advisors were expected to meet with supervisors during the board's regular monthly meeting Tuesday, the county administrator added.