Update: New Kent School Board urging third K-5 elementary school at historic high school

The New Kent School Board is urging the county to consider turning the 1930s historic high school into a third K-5 elementary school.

NEW KENT – The New Kent School Board is urging the county to turn the historic high school into an elementary school for grades K-5 rather than the proposed upper level elementary for grades 3-5.

The board voted 4-1 Monday night to adopt the FY2014-19 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), which includes the historic high school renovation and eliminates the addition of wings at each elementary school.

Supervisors voted in December to accept an unsolicited PPEA proposal from Marengo Management to renovate the 20,000-square foot 1930 school building on New Kent Highway for use as an upper level elementary school. By doing so, the county was open to other bids for 45 days.

Several School Board members remarked Monday night that they are unsure of the cost of details for the upper level proposal, since the county has not released them. However, they speculated that it could be in the $7 million range.

"The proposal states that there has been no public opposition, but how could they oppose it when it has not been presented to the public for discussion?" School Superintendent Dr. Robert "Rick" Richardson, Jr. said.

According to Richardson, ideally, the schools prefer a new third elementary school building, as opposed to a renovated one, but with the $28 million price tag, it is infeasible at this time.

"The best solution is the one that's not available," Richardson told the board.

Principals at the county's two elementary schools agreed that aside from a new school, the K-5 elementary school proposal would be the best for the school system in terms of space and seamless programming.

"From the very beginning that was always the best option," Russ Macomber, principal of George W. Watkins Elementary (WPES) said. "When we started looking at other variables, [grades] 3-5 or just [grades] 4-5, it doesn't allow for continuity of the program."

"We had that once before, we had New Kent Primary feeding into George Watkins Elementary School, and it was very difficult to maintain programs, it's very difficult for everyone to be held accountable when you're separated like that," he added.

"The third [K-5] elementary school would be the best program option," echoed John Moncrief, principal of New Kent Elementary (NKES).

However, adding another K-5 elementary school would require the county undergo a redistricting.

Also, at opening, the K-5 elementary school at the historic building would be at capacity at 350 students, while GWES and NKES would have 500-550 students each.

Under the School Board's direction, staff looked into four short-term elementary school options, three of which included renovating the historic high school into: a county-wide school with grades 4-5, a second New Kent Elementary School campus for grades 3-5, and a third K-5 school. The last option explored adding wings to the existing elementary schools.

Although the additional wings would bring 10 new classrooms to each elementary school Moncrief and Macomber expressed their concern about the larger student population and its effect on programming and space.

Adding the wings would bring the GWES enrollment to around 800 students and trailers would have to remain on site, according to Macomber.

"Adding 10 new classrooms would give me about two classrooms to play with, but it still wouldn't fulfill the needs for special education, resource, or the third computer lab which is required now by testing.

"So, we'd almost basically be at capacity despite adding a pod of 10 classrooms," he said.

Moncrief added that the 10 classrooms wouldn't raise the capacity at NKES, due to proposed renovations, also included in the CIP.

Staff also raised the point that increasing the elementary school student population would max out the core areas, including the cafeteria, library, and media centers, which would lead to early/late lunches and programming delays.

Nate Collins, director of secondary instruction, added that the increased population would change the "climate" of the school system.

"We're a small county, but we don't really have small schools," Collins said. "It's getting harder and harder for principals, assistant principals, and teachers to really know the families well."

"I think the K-5 scenario at the historic high school allows to maintain that level of service," he added.

The estimated cost of the K-5 renovation is around $7 million. It would cost an additional $1.35 million in operational costs, including 18 new employees, including a principal.

Although, for the county, the most tax efficient option is adding wings to the two existing elementary schools, Richardson said continuity of programming should take precedence.

"We feel like our elementary schools are doing what we need and want them to do and [the k-5 proposal] is the least disruptive option to our existing programming," he said.

"We have to trust that the Board of Supervisors will also go with the best programming option."

Not every School Board member was convinced that the Supervisors will be receptive to the K-5 project proposal.

"I do not have faith that the historic high school can be built properly," said Brett C. Marshall, the one dissenting vote. "If I had faith that it would be built properly under School Board supervision, then I'd support [it.]"

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.