ABOVE: Work proceeds on a new Enon Elementary School, one of several building projects either planned or underway in Chesterfield County Public Schools.
By a 4-1 vote with Carrie Coyner dissenting, the Chesterfield County Public Schools board last week decided to ask the county Board of Supervisors to increase the school district’s Capital Improvement Plan to fund a new elementary school in the Magnolia Green area in the western part of the Matoaca District.
The board called a special meeting for July 11 to consider the issue, Matoaca District board member Robert Thompson said. In responding to charges that it was an emergency meeting, Thompson said it was not and noted that the board called a special meeting because it did not have a regular meeting scheduled for July.
Projected growth in the western part of the Matoaca District was driving the move for a new elementary school, along with a developer’s offer to give in-kind contributions such as removing timber from 30 acres of county-owned land and do site work for a new school campus. Thompson said the work would save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The estimated cost for a new elementary school in Magnolia Green is $36.3 million, according to Nita Mensiah-Joseph, the school district’s chief operations officer.
School district officials believe that moving forward with design work for a new school at Magnolia Green at the same time as they are doing it for the new Harrowgate Elementary would result in a smoother redistricting process. According to chesterfield.gov, the new Harrowgate school is scheduled to be completed in mid-2021.
Mensiah-Joseph called planning a new school at Magnolia Green “an aggressive timeline.”
Design fees are estimated at $1.63 million and would be paid for with funds from the Capital Improvement Plan’s reserve account.The reserve account has a balance of $1.97 million, according to a board document.
In remarks prior to voting against the funding request, Coyner said, “I’m frustrated … Do we have to make this decision right now, or do we inconvenience some folks and have a school open later than 2020?”
“The folks who live in that area [Magnolia Green] feel like they know better than the rest of us,” she said, adding that developer contributions amount to less than 1 percent of total construction costs for a school. “Summer is a really hard time to hold public meetings,” she said. “We need more information.”
Thompson said he called the meeting to engage in dialogue. He said designing a new school for Magnolia Green now “would allow it to sync up with Matoaca Elementary to allow one redistricting.” A new Matoaca Elementary is scheduled to open at the current Matoaca Middle West campus in the fall of 2020.
Thompson said that although the board took public comment on the agenda item at the July 11 meeting, it was not considered a “public hearing.” He added that it is his understanding that the Board of Supervisors will conduct a public hearing in the future.
Several people who spoke during public comment castigated Thompson for comments he made — as reported in the July 5 issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch – about funding a new school at Magnolia Green. “When mama gives me money, I just say thank you,” Thompson said.
“It’s is the citizens’ money, not mama’s,” said Ron Hayes, who called Thompson a “liar” and said his actions were “despicable, disgusting, revolting and downright wrong.”
Some were also upset that the July 11 meeting was held on short notice. The district sent out press releases July 3 and 5 about the meeting.
Local watchdog Brenda Stewart said there was “too little transparency” in the board’s actions and asked that the issue be deferred to the board’s regular Aug. 14 meeting. In a public letter shared with area citizens before the meeting, Stewart referred to more than $88 million of “critical” major maintenance on school buildings that has been deferred.
“It’s going to cost too much money,” said Anna White, identifying herself as a school bus driver in the district. “You should repair what you already have.”
In calling for deferred maintenance to be done, Rebecca Brown said, “Many of our schools do not have secure doors.”
Phil Lohr, a representative of Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, also asked that the matter be deferred until the Aug. 14 meeting.
In other news, board chair John Erbach said the district was beginning a 15-day process whereby it would interview candidates for the superintendent’s position following the resignation of James Lane in May. Lane left to be the state superintendent of public instruction. Donald “Rusty” Fairheart is serving as interim superintendent.