Members of the Clarke County School Board appeared both pleased and surprised on Wednesday. After weeks of often contentious disagreement over the best approach for renovating the Clarke County School division’s Berryville-area elementary school buildings the Board reached an easy consensus on a two-school approach and that the Berryville Primary has reached the end of its days as a classroom building.
“It looks like we all agree on wanting a two-school system and to do everything that we can to make classrooms as large as possible,” said School Board member Chip Schutte (White Post) .
Until yesterday, Schutte and the other School Board members appeared divided over consolidating the entire elementary school population in a renovated old Clarke County High School building – a move that would require a space addition and trigger storm water management provisions – or split the students by including Cooley Elementary School in the reconfiguration plan. The fate of 50-year-old Berryville Primary School also came a step closer to being decided.
But at yesterday’s midday meeting most of the differences seemed to have dissolved.
“I would love to see our K-5 students all in a single building,” said Barbara Lee (Millwood). “But we have to look to the future which means utilizing two buildings in order to provide for future expansion.”
Lee added that she thought that Berryville Primary was still a good building and should continue being used for administrative purposes by adding a chairlift to the first floor and limiting the second floor usage to storage.
“We may have to occasionally march the kids back and forth between the two schools but it will be good exercise,” Lee added.
Although several engineering firms, including the Town of Berryville’s engineer consultants Chester Engineering, have characterized addressing storm water management requirements associated with expanding the old Clarke County High School as minimal, School Board member Chip Schutte stuck with his opinion that problems associated with managing runoff from and expanded old Clarke County High School building were more political in nature than technical.
“My view of the old high school is still colored by the storm water management problems that we will trigger if we expand there,” Schutte said. “I believe that we need to stay within the foot print of the old high school.”
Schutte added that the School Board was charged with maximizing the utility of all three of its buildings which includes Berryville Primary.
“Berryville Primary’s days as a school have come to an end,” Schutte said. “The real question is what we are going to do with the Feltner Building, and, can the kids that attending classes there be housed in the same building with the administrative team?”
Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy replied to Schutte that students currently attending classes in the facility, which is owned by the Clarke County Education Foundation, can be accommodated in the Berryville Primary building if it were converted to an administrative center.
School Board chairman Janet Alger (Russell) said that she also favored a two-school approach but expressed concerns about the average classroom size calculation at Cooley Elementary citing a widely-circulated memorandum from former Clarke County School Board chairman Robina Bouffault.
In the memorandum mentioned by Alger, Bouffault stated “ OWPR have incorrectly represented the size of Cooley’s classrooms as being only 720 SF, when in reality they are between 790sf (5 classrooms) and 821-842sf (12 classrooms).”
OWPR is one of four engineering firms that have provided input to the School Board on possible redesign options.
However, School Board member and renovation committee chairman Jim Brinkmeier (Berryville) told Alger that Bouffault’s assertion was incorrect.
“I measured every classroom in the Cooley building,” Brinkmeier said. “The information that is being given is not accurate.”
Alger said that she favored keeping design changes to the buildings minimal.
“I don’t want to do a lot of interior change,” Alger said. “For example, I don’t think that we need to put a bathroom in every classroom – only Kindergarten and maybe first grade. Right now they don’t have bathrooms.”
School Board member Dr. Beth Leffel (Buckmarsh) said that, like Lee, she favored having all students in a single building but had come to the realization that the school division needed two buildings.
Leffel added that continued pressure on Clarke County’s education budget likely will lead to increased class sizes and fewer teachers ultimately placing more students in existing classrooms.
“I feel strongly that we need to meet Virginia Department of Education recommended class sizes,” Leffel said. “Right now we have a chance to make our classrooms meet VDOE guidelines and, if we don’t do, I think that our classroom sizes are going to be too small in the future.”
Leffel also expressed concern about selecting engineering options with estimated costs equal to the exact amount of the School Board’s $7.1M renovation budget.
“I get nervous seeing options that are so close to our budget,” Leffel said.
Leffel agreed with her School Board colleagues regarding Berryville Primary.
“We need to get all of the kids out of Berryville Primary and do what we can there without spending much of our budget,” Leffel said. “I think that we have to maximize the needs of our students and use what’s leftover at Berryville Primary.”
Leffel added that she liked the design options provided by Crabtree Rohrbaugh Associates because the plans identified where future building additions could be expanded.
“We need to have a place to plan for new building so that we don’t get stuck needing trailers again,” Leffel said.
Renovation chairman Jim Brinkmeier said that the most important features for the renovations, in his opinion, are large classroom sizes, as suggested by VDOE, and lots of natural light in classrooms.
“The most important things are to make sure that we allow for expansion and to provide the best learning environment for our students,” Brinkmeier said.
“We have to make sure that we plan for the future and that the space is not maxed-out in five years. If we don’t do reconfigure correctly some of these spaces could end up needing trailers again in a few years,” Brinkmeier added.
Brinkmeier also responded directly to Alger’s assertion that in-room bathrooms were not necessary for all lower elementary grades.
“I think that it is important to have toilets in the classrooms even if it’s not something that we had when we were in school,” Brinkmeier said. “I want to do better for our kids. If it creates a better learning environment, then let’s do it.”
Brinkmeier agreed with the other members of the School Board that a dual-school approach was acceptable and said that he favored placing pre-K and administration at the Cooley building and Kindergarten through fifth grade at the old Clarke County High School.
“I’m not in favor of selling the Berryville Primary building,” Brinkmeier added. “In five years we may find that we need that facility again. I don’t want to ‘mothball’ any of our buildings. We need to use them better than we are now instead.”
With the School Board in consensus that Berryville Primary School space may soon be destined as alternative education space, Dr. Murphy said that school administrators would be “delighted” to abandon the Feltner Building, the School Annex and School Board Office in favor of transitioning to Berryville Primary.
“It would be very easy to accommodate the entire alternative education program in the basement of Berryville Primary,” Murphy said.
The School Board plans to hold a public information meeting at 7:00 p.m. on June 6th at Johnson-Williams Middle School to hear the public’s opinion about renovation options.
“I think that it’s important that we get buy-in from the public before we move ahead,” said Leffel.
CDN Editor: The Clarke County School Board has changed the planned meeting date for public comment on school renovations. The public information meeting at 7:00 p.m. on June 11th at old Clarke County High School.