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Stafford High work could go to voters

October 20, 2012 12:10 am

BY KATIE THISDELL

A rebuild of Stafford High School could be put off for at least one year, forcing students and teachers to use the 37-year-old building longer than planned.

Supervisor Paul Milde has asked the Board of Supervisors to consider a referendum on the $66.1 million project, allowing voters to decide how to proceed. The board will decide at its Nov. 20 meeting whether to put the school rebuild on next year's ballot.

If supervisors agree with Milde, the move could effectively dismiss years of work on the plan to build a new school.

Members of the Stafford School Board hope the board doesn't take that route.

"There's no reason whatsoever that this needs to be on a bond referendum," said School Board Vice Chairwoman Meg Bohmke. "It makes absolutely no sense, except to someone that doesn't want to proceed with this project."

The $2.6 million design contract with Grimm and Parker Architects was awarded in May 2011. The county has already spent $1.6 million on the project.

Design work should wrap up in December, with the project going out to bid in January. Construction would start in April, and the new 275,000-square-foot building would be done in December 2015.

For now, that timeline will stay on course, said Scott Horan, assistant superintendent for facilities. But it would all be put on hold if supervisors vote for the referendum.

"In my opinion, I don't believe it [money already spent] will go to waste, but there might be some additional dollars that we'd have to apply," Horan said.

This wouldn't be the first time county representatives changed their minds about Stafford High, which was built in 1975 and is the oldest of the county's five high schools.

In 2010, a $35 million renovation was planned to the existing school. But the next year, the decision was reversed as the School Board voted for a rebuild on the same site instead, using input from a citizen group.

The new school is modeled after Colonial Forge High, which opened in 1999, and Mountain View High, which opened in 2005.

Plans now call for a three-story building that would serve up to 2,000 students, an increase of 200 over the existing school's capacity.

Irene Egan, who served on the Schools Citizen's Advisory Committee on Capital Improvements Planning, asked supervisors to keep the project going as planned.

"Some of the discussions that are happening now are repeating all of the legwork that has already been completed by volunteer parents in this county, as well as paid staff members of [the school system]," Egan wrote in an email to supervisors. "A referendum on any school CIP issue sets an extremely bad precedent as well as emasculates our publicly elected School Board."

Recently, parents and students have spoken out about the temporary loss of practice fields due to construction, as well as the lack of an auto-tech center.

Both issues were included in presentations earlier in the year.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Milde said the project is "just going to trudge along," despite community concerns. But the majority of the board seems to support the project as approved.

"To say the voters don't have an input in this process is malarkey," said Garrisonville Supervisor Ty Schieber, who was on the School Board at the time of the vote for rebuild.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Stimpson said the motion is a "clear undermining" of the School Board.

"I know a couple ladies out in the audience who have spent countless hours of their time" to get the project where it is, she said.

Supervisor Cord Sterling suggested the county use referendums for all major projects in the capital improvements list.

"I don't think we as government know how to spend the taxpayer dollars better than they do," Sterling said of voters.

Typically, referendums ask county voters to weigh in on projects that would affect the entire community, such as if there were just one high school in Stafford, said Bohmke.

In Stafford, two recent referendums included bonds for transportation and for parks and recreation projects.

"I believe that Mr. Milde is very self-serving and it doesn't reflect how our community at large thinks," Bohmke said. "Our community as a whole does not believe this project needs to be a referendum."

County legal counsel said there would not be enough time to put the matter on the ballot for this year's election.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975
Email: kthisdell@freelancestar.com





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