BRISTOL, Va. – Bristol, Virginia school leaders are seeking some clear direction from City Council when they meet tonight to again discuss the long-proposed new elementary school.
At stake is $2 million in federal COVID relief funding that can be used to help defray some of the cost of a proposed $24 million building planned on land adjacent to Van Pelt Elementary. School officials say construction would need to begin in early 2022 to finish and occupy the building by 2024 – the deadline for spending the federal funds.
A joint meeting between council and School Board is the first item on tonight’s regular agenda.
“I just want to make sure that City Council has all the information they need, answers to all their questions or any additional questions they might need answers to,” Superintendent Keith Perrigan said Monday. “Because we’ll be coming back to them officially in December for a vote and we want to make sure every i is dotted and every t is crossed.”
As the funding entity, council has the final say in whether the school is built.
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The school system previously received approval to access $2 million of its allocation of ESSER II (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding to use as a down payment on construction.
“To be able to leverage that $2 million, the decision made in December will determine whether we can leverage that or not,” Perrigan said in response to a question. “If that is postponed, it will mean $2 million plus however much the cost of the project goes up will be fully burdened by taxpayers in the city of Bristol.”
The request comes at a time when City Council already has a full plate. The remainder of tonight’s agenda deals primarily with issues at the city’s embattled landfill, which is undergoing nearly $2 million in upgrades to try and address widespread odor complaints and notifications of violation by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
In addition, council last month approved joining the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority, a decision that has stirred some public objections and won’t be completed until after all of the member localities approve Bristol joining. Also, the Virginia Resource Agency must still approve Bristol taking on a share of the jail authority’s debt load.
As currently designed, neither a share of the authority’s debt nor the new school plan would count against the city’s bonded indebtedness, which remains well over $100 million and precluded the city from considering construction of a new jail.
Under the proposed school funding model, the developer would pay for all the costs to construct the building through a long-term lease-purchase agreement with the city – which precludes bond borrowing and paying up front as in most traditional public projects.
A key topic will be whether the school system retains Stonewall Jackson Elementary but closes Highland View and Washington-Lee or whether Stonewall Jackson is also closed.
The new school is expected to cost $24 million. If Stonewall Jackson remains open, the city would save about $360,000 from closing the other two schools, but would have to come up with about $500,000 annually to meet an estimated $1.36 million payment.
If school officials opt to also close Stonewall Jackson, the division anticipates saving $1.2 million, leaving a much smaller $90,000 annual funding gap.
“That $500,000, we can use that for salaries or resources or supplies,” Perrigan said. “Keeping Stonewall Jackson open, that [money] has to go toward the loan payment. … At the end of the day, that will be a School Board decision. I’m sure our board would like to hear input from City Council and hopefully we get that.”
Mayor Anthony Farnum said he welcomes the dialogue.
“It’s important we’re all on the same page working toward a common goal and that goal is that we’re putting our kids in the best 21st century learning environment that we can,” Farnum said. “I think the School Board wants some direction on which way the City Council would prefer to go in.”