NEW KENT – A breakdown in communication between the New Kent County Board of Supervisors and School Board has the historic high school renovation project up in the air.
Supervisors and School Board members held a joint meeting Tuesday morning to discuss ownership of the renovation project, which the Supervisors took over last month, much to the School Board's surprise.
"We're here because we had a concern. We received a memorandum that the Board of Supervisors voted to approve itself to supervise the next phases of the school renovations," said School Board Vice-President Sarah Grier Barber. "…We would like for you to hand back over the ownership of the historic high school project renovation."
Despite the School Board's concerns, the Board of Supervisors deferred action on the request until its regular meeting next week. However, the School Board will hold a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 9 in the School Board Office (Historic Courthouse at 12003 New Kent Highway in the Historic Courtroom) to discuss the renovation project.
The historic high school renovation project scope includes gutting the existing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing system, as well as stabilizing the entire building, for an upper elementary school (serving grades 3-5).
Work would include a new roof, masonry repair and window replacement. The building is located at 11825 New Kent Highway in New Kent.
The project's only new construction would be 3,000 square feet of administration space at the main entrance.
Supervisors voted at the September 28 work session to "manage the next phase of the historic high school renovation project, with input from the School Board." This was in spite of the fact that the county had previously discussed turning the project over to the School Board.
According to the July 15 minutes from the School Board retreat, W.R. "Ray" Davis, Jr. "noted that the current timeline was to get the contract on Phases I and II finalized, to get the Department of Education approval, and then turn the project over to the schools."
"Something happened between August 1 and September 25 and I would like to understand what happened during that period of time," said School Board member Dr. Gail Hardinge.
When asked why the Supervisors took action in September, Davis said the School Board proposed $500,000 for an architect, a figure that seemed extreme, and disregarded the proposed $8.5 million total project budget.
Despite his claims, Barber and School Board member Dean Simmons insisted that the School Board never presented any hard numbers to Supervisors, and noted that several historical renovation project budget meetings had been canceled, including one scheduled for October 2.
"We were directed at our meeting, that when we gave you the $500,000 architectural fee estimate, that it was too much money and you all wanted a hard number [for] the architectural fees," said Simmons. "We were directed to go back to Roger Richardson to get a hard number to present to you all so that you could move forward."
"The meeting that we had scheduled was canceled twice by the county and once by us, because we were moving into our new building, so we never had the meeting to present the numbers for the cost of architecture," she continued.
"I felt kind of blindsided myself, because I thought we were working in collaboration with the board to come up with a number and to stay within the budget, but then the board took a vote to cut the School Board out of it. The professional courtesy would be to call someone on the School Board," Simmons added.
Davis also referred to a letter from Virginia Department of Education Architectural Consultant Hunter Barnes, which told the Board of Supervisors that the project was a design-build project only.
"That's not your decision," Davis told School Board members.
According to the School Board, Barnes's letter was full of misinformation and sent to the county unbeknownst to the School Board.
Barnes sent a letter to County Administrator Rodney Hathaway on July 30 stating that phase 2 of the project was a design-build project and was being handled by the School Board. Hathaway responded on August 26, and told Barnes that the School Board did not control the project and that the project had not been decided as a design-build project.
According to School Superintendent Dr. Robert Richardson, Jr., the School Board was unaware of the Supervisors' concerns.
"The first we understood that there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding on Mr. Barnes's part was when I received a copy of the letter from Mr. Hathaway to Hunter Barnes basically saying, 'The School Board has overstepped.' At least that's the way I would characterize it," Richardson said.
"The bottom line is we, at no time, have ever told Hunter Barnes, 'This is what is going to happen'."
Like Simmons, Richardson emphasized that had the county communicated with the School Board about Barnes's letter, the matter could have been solved.
"Prior to sending that letter, [we should have gotten] a 30 second phone call, as in, 'we're concerned about the letter we got from Hunter Barnes. Do you know how he came by this impression? Was this correct'?" said Richardson,
"I could have talked to Hunter Barnes and asked him to rewrite that information in a matter of minutes."
"We found out about it after the letter was sent to him."
During the heated discussion, the School Board questioned the Supervisors' motives behind gaining control of the historic high school renovation.
"There has been a PPEA [Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002] dance in this county for well over a year, so it looks as if, in additional to the budget, there are two underlying pieces: budget and how it's going to get done, and both of those feel like pressure," said Hardinge.
"It feels like we can't decide even if we were to meet your budget because a letter that very simply had the words, 'design-bid, build,' you had such a fit. So, that tells me that you as a collective board had a problem with the process."
According to Hardinge, if the Board of Supervisors keeps control over the historic high school renovation project, it will be only the second governmental body, along with the City of Richmond, that controls historic school renovations.
"The only cautionary note I would offer is if the budget is going to be capped at $8.5 million…the finished product will be based on that dollar amount, not based on a desirable world we want to see," said Richardson, who referred to the auditorium restoration project.
"A lot of work will have to be done to the auditorium restore it to its original condition. That, as an example, might have to be painted over instead of refinished."
Following a closed session, Supervisors discussed the project's planning budget.
Supervisors have allocated $8.5 million to the project, $2.65 million for phase 1 (currently being completed) and $5.9 million for phase 2.
The first phase of the historic high school includes renovating the 1950s (south building, Building N) and the courtyard area, while the second phase includes work on the 1930s building (Building K) and cafeteria.
Building N currently houses the Bridging Communities Technical Center. The existing vocational school will remain in Building N, however, it will be blocked off from the rest of the school.
The lower level of Building N will house the kitchen and cafeteria, and the top floor will have 11 classrooms and the clinic.
The lower level of Building K will contain the existing gymnasium and locker rooms, music room, four classrooms and two resource spaces, while the top floor will have nine classrooms, two resource areas, the library, an administrative area, and the auditorium.
Although some Supervisors raised concerns about the architect fees, other members were pleased that the School Board was still within the $8.5 million overall project budget.
"As long as the School Board is within the budget, I don't have a problem with it," said Supervisor Tommy Tiller.
The Supervisors will review the matter again on October 15 at 6 p.m. in the County Administration Boardroom.
Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.