The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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May 7, 2013

Architect says Fayette schools need $122 million in upgrades

FAYETTEVILLE — An architect’s report states that the construction costs to address the needs of Fayette County’s school facilities total $122 million, nearly double the county’s bonding capacity.

This figure reflects the costs of keeping all schools in operation. It includes critical needs to keep the doors open, as well as other high-priority needs to bring the buildings up to code. It does not reflect desired or “wish list” projects like the construction of a football field for Valley High School, for example.

The report was received Monday and presented to the Board of Education by Fayette County Schools Superintendent Keith Butcher during the evening’s board meeting. The state superintendent of schools, Dr. James Phares, also attended the meeting.

Citizens overflowed the board room, packed into the lobby, and even spilled out onto the sidewalk.

The assessment was done at no charge by ZMM Architects at the request of the school system, which is in the midst of a community input process to decide how to move forward on facility needs in the county.

One much-discussed option — put forward by two Meadow Bridge area residents, with the support of the state superintendent of schools — is to put a bond before voters this fall that would repair facilities and keep them all open.

But given the county’s approximately $67 million bonding capacity, one bond will not cover those costs as previously assumed.

“I think addressing our needs will clearly take more than one bond or (School Building Authority) funding or all the maintenance funds we have in our budget. It will take all that,” said Butcher.

He also emphasized that for every year the county waits to address the needs, the bill goes up.

Waiting only one year will see the price rise by $8 million. By 2017, the cost would hit nearly $160 million.

The county’s upcoming community input process is aimed at determining the needs and desires of school communities relative to their buildings and their quality of education.

At 6 p.m. Thursday at Fayetteville High School, a county facilities advisory committee of 60 people elected to represent their schools will have an opportunity to hear directly from the architect who developed the report.

At that time, they will be able to ask questions and seek clarification on the assessment.

With the architect’s estimates in hand, they will meet on a school-by-school basis to prioritize those needs, as well as create a “wish list” of desired improvements to add to the critical needs.

Oak Hill High School will have its meeting on the subject at 6 p.m. Monday in the auditorium. Other schools are expected to have their meetings before May 18.

Representatives from each school will again meet in the larger committee of 60 on June 4 to synthesize and prioritize the lists, which could be the basis of the bond call.

A 2009 bond for $48.8 million that would have built a new high school to draw students from Fayetteville, Midland Trail, Mount Hope, and Oak Hill high schools was overwhelmingly rejected.

Proponents of keeping all schools open say this shows that Fayette countians want to preserve community schools. Opponents say that doing so is fiscally irresponsible and does not address curriculum needs, which were cited as a major problem in the audit that led to state takeover of the county system in 2010.

To keep all schools open would be a sharp reversal from the state’s previous position — that Fayette needs to increase efficiency by closing some of its 18 schools — and from the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan vetted by a committee of Fayette County citizens in 2010.

The reasons given in the past for closing schools included the need to address a teacher shortage, a thin curriculum spread over five high schools, and aging facilities that had not been adequately maintained over too many years.

County administrators expect to use the bond, if it passes, as matching funds to seek funding from the School Building Authority for new construction.

It is unclear at this point whether this fall’s planned bond call will necessarily reflect a desire to keep all schools open. The county is in the midst of studying public sentiment on the issue, through focus groups and polling.

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