New Kent Supervisors move forward with historic high school project

By Amy Jo Martin, amartin@tidewaterreview.com

12:02 PM EST, February 24, 2014


NEW KENT – The historic high school project in New Kent County is one step closer to becoming a reality.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously at Wednesday night’s special called public hearing to approve Marengo Management's unsolicited Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA) proposal, and to move into a more detailed phase.

“I think we’ve been dealing with this long enough,” said District 5 Supervisor W.R. “Ray” Davis, Jr. before making the motion to approve the proposal.

The project includes the renovation of the 20,000-square-foot 1930 school building on New Kent Highway for use as an elementary school in fall 2015. It has not been determined whether or not the school would function as a K-5 or upper level elementary school.

The School Board is urging the county to turn the historic high school into an elementary school for grades K-5, and says that doing so would help prevent school overcrowding, promote student safety, and keep programs consistent.

As part of Marengo's proposal, the project does not include furnishings and “hardscaping,” or landscaping outside of the historic courtyard,” including parking lots or playgrounds.

The proposal includes the following details:

•New HVAC systems

•Restoration to the historical stage

•Upgrading of electrical wiring

•Increasing drainage capacity on grounds

•Adding 10 security cameras

•Updating handicap ramp and entrance

•Designing and installing wet sprinklers

•Reducing any visible vinyl asbestos floor tiles

•Construction of classrooms

•Updating exterior entrance doors

•New suspended ceilings

The county will begin negotiating an interim agreement that would include replacing the east wall and renovating the kitchen in full, demolition, and plan creations to be approved by the Virginia Department of Education.

Although the proposed cost is not available for public viewing, Supervisor Ron Stiers said that the figure is around $7 million.

According to former school financial director, Ralph Westbay, this figure is unreasonable, especially when considering that the historic school would have become an elementary school with a small capacity and yearly operating cost of $1.1 million.

“Over 10 years, that [initial figure] is going to probably cost the county $20 million for 300 or 400 kids,” Westbay said. “This is an err in judgment.”

Westbay requested that the board consider restoring its original plans for the building, which called for the space being used as School Board and government offices, as well as a fully restored 1930s auditorium.

“If God was in front of me proposing this, I would kneel down and say, ‘You’re making the wrong move’,” Westbay concluded.

Although School Superintendent Dr. Robert “Rick” Richardson, Jr. did not speak during the public hearing, he later remarked that Westbay’s “facts and figures are absolutely correct and irrefutable.” 

Lanexa resident Teresa Belback also voiced her concern about the proposal. Belback, who has a background in environmental contracting, said she felt the proposal was not ready to be approved, and posed numerous questions about timelines, budgets, environmental impacts, and the many unknowns.

“For the record, I’ve been a witness to other renovation projects in this county…and when these buildings are turned over, you have equipment that doesn’t function,” said Belback.

“I’d love to see a proposal like this require [that Marengo] manage this building for one year after it’s completed to ensure that all the issues are worked out. So that when the building is turned over to the county, it’s functional and there aren’t major issues because this county doesn’t have the resources to deal with issues like that.”

Fellow Lanexa resident Bill O’Keefe spoke in favor of the proposal, and added that Marengo Management, which has done several projects in the county, including phase I and II of the historic high school and the Health and Human Service Building, has proven successful.

“It has established a reputation for excellence and cost-control,” he said.

Marengo Management project manager Dennis Mountcastle, also commented on Marengo’s current renovation of the historic high school’s 1950s building.

“It’s about 60-65 percent complete. And there has not been one single change order put in place by us as a contractor. There have been change orders as the status of the building changed from offices to a school, but we have not had one single change order,” said Mountcastle, who added that as a former New Kent County resident, he holds the project in high regard.

“It’s not just a job to me. To me, it’s an opportunity, it’s fun, and it’s challenging to come back to a school that was one year-old when I started it,” he said. “I have a lot of personal interest in it, making sure that this project is done properly.”

Though the Board of Supervisors is entering into an interim agreement, it cannot enter into a formal agreement until mid-March, 30 days after Wednesday's meeting.

A copy of the proposal is available in the New Kent County Administration Office.

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