Spending limit might put project on hold

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INDEPENDENCE — The Grayson County School Board can spend up to $16.3 million to complete school construction projects, but that's not enough money to finish renovations at Fries Middle School.

And neither schools' Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas nor County Administrator Jonathan Sweet are sure how the remainder of the Fries project will be funded.

The Phase I school construction facilities plan includes a new school in Grant and renovations and additions to Fries Middle School. Grayson Highlands School is 95 percent complete. Fries school renovations and additions are about 60 percent complete.

Supervisors approved a resolution to “reauthorize school construction funding for Phase I to $16.3 million” on March 11. The resolution stresses that supervisors are providing “additional funding” and that supervisors may be required “to seek additional financing to satisfy further obligations associated with a $16.3 million construction project.”

School Board Chairman Misty Cassell noted in Feb. 9 and March 11 letters that $16.3 million is not enough money to complete Phase I.

“While the School Board recognizes that the county, like all Virginia localities, faces a current revenue environment that is extremely challenging, the supervisors’ December resolution represents a significant and disappointing change in the supervisors’ previous commitment to fund school construction projects for the benefit of the county’s students and citizens," Cassell wrote in a Feb. 9 response. "Through the supervisors’ action in December, it has signaled its intent to substantially alter and reduce the amount of its funding for school construction projects already well underway. Well before the December resolution, the School Board contracted to incur school construction costs in excess of the supervisors’ recent reduced commitment, and the supervisors’ action will result in serious pragmatic consequences for the citizens and students of Grayson County."

The resolution states that supervisors will be required to plan the financing based on accurate information provided by the school board. That information should “consist of weekly progress reports, change orders and expense reports associated with the project.”

The resolution allows the use of up to $16.3 million from the school construction loan "to advance and complete" Phase I.

Is there a chance Fries construction will be suspended?

"I don’t know," Thomas answered. "I don’t know what the supervisors are going to do," she said.

Sweet said that it's uncertain to what extent Phase I projects will be completed.

"We are currently working with our bond counsel and financial advisor to evaluate options and derive recommendations for the [Board of Supervisors] to consider," Sweet said in an e-mail. "Much of the outcome depends on the school board and how they plan to optimize the funding the board has authorized them," he added. "Again, we are still working on options and are not ready to roll out a definitive solution at this juncture."

Thomas said that stopping the project won’t actually save much, if any, money.

A combination of liability issues and contract commitments would require that the school system build fencing and guard railings and add lighting to secure a construction site. Materials already paid for and delivered would have to be stored somewhere so they wouldn’t be ruined or stolen. Exposed steel beams already in place — but left out in the elements — would have to be sandblasted if the project were to resume.

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

And that’s not all: Thomas said the purpose of the Fries renovation is to 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 building is in bad condition,” Thomas said.