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Bristol Virginia City Council seeks clarity on school plan
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Bristol Virginia City Council seeks clarity on school plan

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BRISTOL, Va. — The Bristol Virginia City Council made it clear Tuesday they want to know how many elementary schools the School Board plans to operate before voting next month on whether to build a new one.

The two bodies held a joint meeting for about 90 minutes of the council’s regular meeting to review costs, funding options and floor plans for a proposed school planned for land adjacent to Van Pelt Elementary.

The council’s overwhelming question was: Does the board intend to close three schools and consolidate students into two buildings on the Van Pelt campus or keep Stonewall Jackson Elementary open and operate three elementary buildings? The proposed new school would cost $24 million but wouldn’t count against the city’s debt limit through a unique public-private financing option in which developer J.A. Street would build the school and then enter a 30-year lease-purchase agreement with the city.

Monthly payments would be about $1.3 million, with the city ultimately responsible for about $500,000 if Stonewall Jackson Elementary remains open, or no additional appropriation if Stonewall Jackson is closed.

The City Council is expected to consider the funding request at its Dec. 14 meeting.

“When you bring us the plan, will you know if you’re going to build a school and have two schools or have three schools?” Councilman Bill Hartley asked Superintendent Keith Perrigan. “When we voted on this the last time, the wo main complaints from the public were ‘wait until the casino comes, so we feel better about the financial ability of the city’ and having a two- or three-school option. Particularly, folks on the west end not wanting to go all the way across town. … Will the School Board make that determination before you bring it back to us?”

Perrigan said he didn’t know the School Board’s intentions.

In past votes, the School Board has been divided about having all elementary students on one campus on the city’s eastern end, near Interstate 81’s Exit 7.

In response to the casino comment, Perrigan said if the city approves proceeding with construction, the first payment wouldn’t be due until August 2023 — when the building would open — which would be more in line with when the Hard Rock Resort and Casino is open and operating.

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Perrigan also said they estimated that a student in the Stonewall Jackson zone would have an additional 11 minutes added to their morning and afternoon bus rides.

“Our board has voted to consolidate Washington-Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Highland View. That vote was taken early on in this process,” Perrigan said. “What we’re approving is this [proposed] school building for 600 to 650 students. The decision about how that’s consolidated will be made by our board, and I’m not sure their intent is to make that decision before they bring it to you for a vote, or after.”

Hartley said the board should make that decision soon.

“I think the public and their view would change, the comments we would get, the comments the School Board would get. Some people might oppose one thing or another. … I think knowing what we’re going to do before we vote and go down that path to appropriate something would be very helpful for a whole lot of reasons,” Hartley said.

Councilman Kevin Wingard took it a step further, saying “everybody would love” to give them a new school.

“Mr. Hartley asked how are y’all going to propose this to us. … Is it one school, two schools, three schools? We need to know this way before December,” Wingard said. “We need to let the community know.”

Wingard said the original model with just two schools at Van Pelt “was not well received.”

“The parents and public needs to know what the School Board’s intentions are with these schools,” Wingard said.

Council member Becky Nave was first to raise the issue, asking the board if they had a preference. Only board member Steve Fletcher voiced an opinion.

“Stonewall Jackson — keeping that open or closed — I debated that a long time in my mind,” Fletcher said. “If we close Stonewall Jackson, we have every single elementary student in Bristol, Virginia in a new school. Anybody that moves to Bristol, Virginia with elementary-age students, they’ll go to a brand-new school. I think that’s pretty important.”

Built in the 1970s, Van Pelt is the city’s newest school.

The School Board is expected to meet Dec. 6 and the council Dec. 14.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC

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