King George Voters May Decide on Whether to Fund New School

A referendum on whether to fund a new county school may be headed to King George voters in November.

“It looks like you need a new preschool,” said T.C. Collins, Chair of the Board of Supervisors, to School Board members during a joint meeting of the two boards on Monday afternoon. “I think everybody agrees with that. Now we get to the $1 million question—how to pay for it. My suggestion is that we put that we put a referendum out to the voters in November and see what they want to finance. They would make a decision on [whether] taxes should be increased to pay for it.”

King George County’s three preschool programs—Early Childhood Special Education, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, and the Peer Model Program—are housed together with the School Board offices in a building that dates to 1939 and poses significant health and safety concerns.

Among these safety concerns is lead in the drinking water, which the Virginia Department of Health detected most recently during a monitoring period that occurred between June and September of 2022, according to reports provided to the Advance by the school division.

The school’s communal water fountains were shut down in 2021, when the division began a bottled water service to the preschool as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, spokeswoman Amanda Higgins said.

The division added water filtration and water bottle filling attachments to the existing water fountains in the summer of 2023 and discontinued the bottled water service, Higgins said.

Boyd told supervisors on Monday that pictures of the current state of the building don’t convey “nearly the effect you could gain through all your senses, including smell.”

“The entire building has been described to me as ‘like matchsticks,’” he said. “These students are our youngest and most vulnerable, as far as health needs and concerns.”

In September of 2023, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the county’s Economic Development Authority to issue a public facility revenue bond in an amount up to $22 million to finance a variety of capital projects, “including, but not limited to, a new pre-school facility and fire and rescue facilities in the County.”

County spokeswoman Amy Southall said on Wednesday that no money from the fall 2023 bond has been allocated so far.

The school division contracted with Moseley Architects late last year to conduct a feasibility study for a new preschool with capacity of 260 students (current enrollment in the county’s preschool programs is 135 students).

The study looked at putting the new preschool on a 47-acre School Board-owned parcel off Dahlgren Road, either on top of where the de-commissioned King George Middle School is now, or at the back of that property, which would allow for a fourth elementary school to go where the old middle school now is.

After the initial feasibility study concluded, the county and school division requested a second study that would look at the site of the decommissioned middle school in conjunction with the current middle and high schools, with a focus on connecting the existing and proposed new buildings and relieving traffic congestion on U.S. 3.

Moseley’s estimate of the cost for a new preschool building is $40.8 million. The estimated cost of a fourth elementary school on the footprint of the old middle school is $55.3 million. There would also be a $2.5 million cost associated with building a connector road between all the school sites, as well as $3.7 million in “off-site improvements,” according to the feasibility study.

On Monday, supervisor Cathy Binder said it would be more cost-effective to simply build the fourth elementary school and divide the preschool programs among the four elementary schools.

School Board Chair David Bush said the division would prefer to keep the preschool programs together in one building, but that possibly the fourth elementary school could be constructed with capacity for the preschool as well.

The School Board will work in the next few weeks to “come up with a plan” that more specifically identifies its needs and the associated costs, to prepare for putting the matter to a referendum in November.

$700,000 approved for the school division’s budget

Also on Monday, supervisors agreed to transfer $700,000 from the county’s fund balance to the school division’s operating fund for fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1.

This leaves the school division about $1 million short of its full ask from the county.

The School Board approved a budget on March 25 that was based on the General Assembly’s state budget and requested just $122,648 in new money from the county.

However, earlier this month, the school division’s finance department identified a calculation error, which resulted in the School Board having to amend its budget and request $1.7 million in new money from the county.

The funding would pay for new positions to accommodate increased enrollment projections and special needs; a 1% pay increase and efforts to relieve salary compression for school division staff; a health insurance premium increase; and the “additional/inflated cost of equipment, services, and supplies.”

Boyd on Monday said the division needs at least $666,309 in new money from the county in order to implement the pay raises and create just one new position in accounts payable. He said the division is facing several “unfunded mandates” from the state and that any amount less than $1.7 million would require cuts to programs and personnel.

Supervisors, however, questioned many of the school division’s estimated needs and said Boyd was employing “scare tactics.”

Collins, who was on the School Board for eight years before being elected to the Board of Supervisors, said he doesn’t understand why the cost of utilities is increasing—he said a “performance agreement” should have prevented that, but neither he nor Boyd provided details of this agreement.

Collins also said he doesn’t agree with the School Board’s proposal to increase stipends provided to coaches, and he suggested that the school division could apply unused funding from vacant staff positions to its operating needs.

Kenneth Stroud, the James Madison district supervisor, said that in his opinion, pay raises should be “performance based” and not extended to all staff.

School Board members defended the budget. Bush said it’s a budget “that we need in order to keep being a top school in the state of Virginia,” and Ed Frank, at-large representative, said the budget has already been sharply pared down.

“We cut this thing down as much as possible,” he said. “This doesn’t touch the behavior specialists that we need in every elementary school, for example. The only thing I can say is that if you are happy as a board and as citizens with not having the quality education that we could have, then we can make these cuts. But if we want that quality education for our sons and daughters and grandchildren, then we’re asking for the bare minimum.”

Collins’s motion to transfer $700,000 from the fund balance to the schools was unanimously approved, as was a follow-up motion by Binder to “revisit” the school division’s budget in August, after an audit on the current fiscal year’s budget has been completed.

Higgins said the school division anticipates that the $700,000 transfer will fund the staff raises, the health insurance increase, the stipend adjustments, the accounts payable position, and curriculum needed to implement the Virginia Literacy Act.

“The budget initiatives that will likely remain unfunded include several new positions to support different programs and the student population growth. We anticipate the two new teacher positions at middle school and an additional two teacher positions at high school, a school counselor, and two school security officer positions will not be funded. Additionally, the proposed alternative education program for secondary students will not be implemented. The proposal to address salary compression on the pay scales at step 6 will likely not be funded,” Higgins said.

Managing Editor and Correspondent