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School Board Passes Long-term Construction Plan

Small bond package includes funding for Yorktown and Wakefield high schools and Jefferson Middle School.

Construction on Yorktown High School is poised to begin in July 2008, after the School Board voted last week to include funding for the renovations in its fall bond package.

During its July 6 meeting, the School Board approved a $232 million, six-year Capital Improvement Plan and announced it will bring forward a $33.7 million bond for the public to vote on, the smallest bond proposal in a decade.

The bond package, which is $45 million lower than the one originally recommended by Superintendent Robert Smith in May, will also include $6.9 million in design funding for Wakefield High School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

THE BOARD WAS expected to pass a capital spending program in early June, but deferred a vote as members wrestled with how best to craft a slimmer, more restrained plan, and what school buildings to prioritize.

"The board has struggled with a number of questions: What order the buildings should come, and what to do about those buildings in the meantime," said new School Board Chair Mary Hynes.

Rapidly escalating construction costs and a need to stay within self-imposed debt limits, which are not supposed to exceed 10 percent of the yearly operating budget, have constrained what the school system can build in coming years.

"The growth rate of local tax revenue is unlikely to continue and our debt ratios are approaching maximum levels," said School Board member Ed Fendley. "We don't want to find ourselves in several years where we are forced to choose between paying down debt and compensating teachers fairly."

In response to these concerns, Hynes and Fendley both supported postponing further funding for Yorktown until 2008 to have a more complete design scheme. This would have delayed the start of construction until January 2009.

"I have been concerned for quite some time that the [Yorktown} planning process has not kept up with the CIP timing," said Hynes, who introduced an amendment to push back Yorktown funding two years. "I am very uncomfortable moving forward at this point in time."

Yet the majority of board members — new Vice Chair Libby Garvey, Frank Wilson and Dave Foster — said it was imperative to finish construction on Yorktown as soon as possible, since a commitment had been made to the community. More than $2 million has already been spent on design work for the school.

"The renovation of Yorktown is underway," Foster said. The School Board possesses a "well-deserved reputation for finishing what we start, and that is what we need to do here."

Garvey emphasized the need to "keep the trust of the community," and not slow the momentum of the project. "This is not a time to slam on the breaks and have everyone fall forward," she added.

Postponing the start of construction by one year would have added an additional $6.7 million to Yorktown's price tag, which currently stands at just under $100 million, said Sarah Woodhead, the school system's director of construction and design. The building process is expected to take four years.

Yorktown began as an elementary school, and the current facility has "inadequate space and infrastructure" for students' needs, said Yorktown PTA President John Vihstadt. Delaying construction would have sent a "discouraging signal" to the community, Vihstadt said.

THE BOARD APPROVED money for design work on Jefferson and Wakefield against the recommendation of Superintendent Smith, who preferred those funds be allocated to overhauling the Career Center.

Jefferson’s building systems need to be replaced, the middle school space should be reconfigured and more daylight could be introduced into the academic portions of the facility, a recent school study found.

The School Board commissioned a new comprehensive study of several sites, including county middle schools, leased space, the Career Center and the High School Continuation program, in order to prioritize future funding.

Instead of allocating funding for other future projects, such as at Wakefield and the Career Center, the School Board set aside approximately $92.8 to be allocated by the board in coming years.

"The rest [of the funding] is in a 'to be determined' category depending on how finances go and what we learn from projects as we go forward with the 2006 bond," said Mary Beth Chambers, assistant superintendent for finance.

More than $12.2 million from current revenue will be used to rebuild the Reed School, which houses several school programs. The county and school system are in negotiations to develop a joint project encompassing both the Reed School and Westover Library.

School Board members must still decide what to do with the High School Continuation program, which will be relocated from the Arlington Mill Community Center. They included funding in the CIP for design work and $2.5 million for the build-out of leased space.