For well over a year Clarke County Public Schools staff, and now two School Boards, have been talking about how best to use $7.2M in approved funding to reconfigure three aging schools buildings once construction of the new Clarke County High School is complete. On Monday night newly appointed School Board construction committee chairman Jim Brinkmeier (Berryville) offered his view on how best to move forward on the three-school renovation plan while eliminating nearly $2.5M in building costs. However, Brinkmeier’s proposal to explore a no-cost engineering review of the idea ran into immediate resistance from several School Board members.
Brinkmeier prefaced his proposal to the construction committee, which includes all five School Board members, by saying that he wasn’t advocating any specific renovation approach, but instead would like to bring in an engineering firm to review options not included in recent recommendations by Virginia Department of Education space planners.
“I’ve looked at the VDOE documents and I have concerns,” Brinkmeier said. “I know that everyone is pushing to move forward on the renovations and I agree that we need to move expeditiously, but prudently as well. We will not get a second chance to do this right.”
The Clarke County Board of Supervisors have expressed concerns for many months about moving the school renovations forward while economic recessionary pressures are keeping building costs low. But despite the pressure from the Supervisors, there are still no firm plans for moving forward with a solicitation for the renovation work.
Brinkmeier’s concerns are focused on the current reconfiguration recommendations from VDOE presented to the previous School Board which include repurposing the current Clarke County High School by consolidating student programs and classes from Cooley Elementary and conversion of Berryville Primary to an administrative facility:
Boyce – K-5 (head start moves to D.G. Cooley Lower Elementary)
D.G. Cooley Upper Elementary School (old CCHS) – Grades 1 – 5 (greenhouse remains for school and division use)
D.G. Cooley Lower Elementary School (current D.G. Cooley) – ECSE, Head Start (moves from Boyce), Kindergarten, Student Assessment Center
JWMS – No changes
Old CCHS – becomes D.G. Cooley Upper Elementary School
Annex – repurposed (records retention; unheated storage) or closed
Joint Administrative Services – repurposed or closed
School Board Office – repurposed or closed
F&M Bank Building – vacated
Berryville Primary – evolves into support center for Governmental and School Operations
Current CCHS Ag Shop and Ag Portable – evolves into JAS Maintenance Shop and Training Center
Current JAS Maintenance Shop – evolves into additional space for JAS Purchasing and Procurement
On Monday night, Brinkmeier questioned whether maintaining both the Cooley building and the old Clarke County High School building as separate schools made sense. Brinkmeier said that his concern was based on projections that splitting elementary programs between the existing CCHS and Cooley could result in immediate capacity problems.
“If the recommendations are accurate,” Brinkmeier said “We’ll be spending a lot of money but still be overcapacity on Day 1. I don’t want to be in a situation where we need classroom trailers again and I don’t think that the public does either.”
Although VDOE’s recommendations are based on Virginia Public School Facilities Guidelines, the ultimate cost of implementing the design principles will depend on the School Board’s initial assumptions on the best use of the buildings. For example, adherence to VDOE classroom size recommendations could mean significantly higher renovation costs as walls and plumbing are expanded at the current high school to accommodate the larger recommended elementary school classroom sizes as well as in-classroom bathroom and sink facilities for lower elementary students.
On Monday night, Brinkmeier floated the idea of expanding the current Clarke County High School footprint to accommodate all of the elementary programs under a single roof. The expanded school plan, according to Brinkmeier, could improve school operating efficiencies while avoiding potentially unpredictable renovation cost overruns.
“Renovation cost isn’t as predictable as new construction costs,” Brinkmeier cautioned. “With old buildings you never know what you are going to get into after you’ve started.”
Clarke County Schools Superintendent, Mike Murphy agreed that Brinkmeier’s goal of a single school was superior to operating multiple school facilities.
“A school of 600 students provides the ideal situation,” Murphy said. “It certainly lowers a lot of other costs.”
In order to evaluate the single school approach, Brinkmeier asked the School Board to agree to allow engineering firm PHR&A to provide the school division with a no-cost engineering review of what the costs and challenges are for converting the existing high school to a an expanded single-facility elementary campus.
“I’d like to evaluate expansion at the current high school in order to have our entire program under one roof,” Brinkmeier said. “I think that for eight to ten additional classrooms and one additional office we’d need about 12,000 square feet and at today’s construction costs that would be between $2.1 – 2.3M dollars. It would also allow us to not spend $2.5M on Berryville Primary and move school administration to Cooley.”
However, Brinkmeier’s suggestion prompted immediate concerns from School Board members Chip Schutte (White Post), Barbara Lee (Millwood), and School Board chairman Janet Alger (Russell) while School Board member Dr. Beth Leffel (Buckmarsh) said that she felt that the proposition at least deserved to be considered.
“If there isn’t any cost to the division for the engineering review I think that we should at least explore it,” Leffel said.
But the remaining School Board members expressed reluctance to pursue Brinkmeier’s suggestion by citing a range of concerns.
School Board members Barbara Lee and Chip Schutte expressed concerns about the propriety of accepting a “free” engineering review from PHR&A and then possibly approving the same engineering work on a future request for proposals were PHR&A to be the successful bidder.
“If we did this and PHR&A were to win the contract I would not vote to approve the award,” Schutte said.
“Is something like this legal?” Lee asked. “It seems like insider trading.”
School Board member Janet Alger also expressed concerns over re-definition of what she referred to as the school division’s “core facilities.”
“I think that we need to guide any firm that we are asking for help from,” Alger said.
The most stringent argument came from Schutte and former School Board member Robina Bouffault, still the School Board’s authorized owner agent on the new high school project, over storm water management issues at the current high school.
“This storm water management problem has already been considered by the previous School Board,” Bouffault stated from her seat in the audience. “There were no storm water management facilities installed at the current high school when it was originally built,” Bouffault said. “Any change to the footprint of the existing high school will trigger storm water management requirements.”
“I don’t think that it makes sense to spend any time on a plan to expand the current high school because of the storm water management issues there,” Schutte said. “Finding a place to put the storm water is a huge challenge.”
Brinkmeier, however, did not appear ready to abandon the potentially $2.5M in cost-savings without further discussion as the construction committee meeting hit a hard-stop at 7:00pm in preparation for the evening School Board budget work session.
“I’ve spoken to PHR&A and they are aware of the storm water management considerations,” Brinkmeier said as the meeting concluded. “My understanding is that the review would consider a 10,000 – 15,000 square-foot expansion of the current high school as well as storm water management and would take 30 – 45 days. The evaluation would include all three buildings and provide recommendations about best use.”
The construction meeting ended with no formal action on Brinkmeier’s proposal.