At the urging of parents who packed the Fredericksburg City Council meeting Tuesday, council members voted unanimously to delay action on a controversial plan to ease school overcrowding.
The proposed 25-Year Student Capacity Plan, which the city’s School Board approved Feb. 4 on a 5–1 vote, would expand Lafayette Upper Elementary School instead of building a new school. Construction would begin in July, and Hugh Mercer Elementary second-graders would move there when work is completed in 2021. The plan calls for James Monroe High School to be expanded in 2024 to provide space for an additional 200 students.
“That’s only a short-term solution for a long-term need for a new school,” said Kristen Kinnamon, the mother of one Hugh Mercer student and another who will be in kindergarten there next year.
She said Hugh Mercer has had an 18 percent increase in enrollment since school started last fall, and that Lafayette will be overcrowded as soon as the addition is completed. She, like several of the others who spoke during the meeting’s public comment section, questioned the accuracy of Moseley Architect’s enrollment projections, which apparently are based only on estimated live births at Mary Washington Hospital.
Kinnamon asked that the Virginia Preschool Initiative students be moved back to the Walker–Grant Center, which would free up four classrooms at Hugh Mercer. The VPI program was moved to Hugh Mercer when Original Walker–Grant was renovated, but hasn’t returned to the renamed Walker-Grant Center because of transportation issues. Hugh Mercer, which was built to handle 880 students, is so overcrowded now that the auxiliary gym has been divided to make two classrooms, and physical education classes have to double up when using the main gym.
Deputy Superintendent Marci Catlett, who attended the meeting, said school officials and the School Board are examining ways to provide buses and drivers for children in the VPI program. It runs a full day, unlike the half-day Head Start program that is already at the Walker–Grant Center. VPI students have been riding buses with Hugh Mercer students.
Several parents of Hugh Mercer students also mentioned that they didn’t feel that second-graders were ready to go to school with third- through fifth-graders at Lafayette. Councilman Tim Duffy, who is the assistant principal at James Monroe, pointed out that many successful elementary schools teach kindergarten through fifth-graders.
The School Board’s decision to approve the Student Capacity Plan prompted about 60 parents to attend the Hugh Mercer Parent Teacher Association meeting Feb. 7 so they could discuss their concerns with Councilman Jason Graham and School Board member Kathleen Pomeroy. Pomeroy voted against the plan because she said it was “short-sighted in terms of expenditures.”
The vote “really woke everyone up to this is not a good solution,” Kristy Bretzinger, the Hugh Mercer PTA’s president, said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “These decisions are going to cause people to leave the school system.
“That’s the conversation I’m having with people. We’re going to have to move out of the city or figure out a way to fund our kids in private school.”
Council members said at the meeting that they’ve been receiving emails, phone calls and a petition about the student capacity plan since the School Board’s vote. The petition, which includes the names of 88 parents, said they “believe the Plan doesn’t suffice—even as a Band-Aid solution—for our overcrowded schools suffering from inadequate services, rooms, staff, resources and basic safety measures. And, it doesn’t take into proper account the population increase that will certainly be happening to Fredericksburg in the near future.”
Several people who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said that they were willing to pay more in taxes for a new school.
City Manager Tim Baroody said the council provided $250,000 for Moseley’s study to get a good handle on enrollment projections, and that city officials, council members, school officials and School Board members worked together to balance the needs with the city’s ability to pay to address them, along with other pressing city needs.
Moseley offered three scenarios, and said that the one the School Board approved was the most cost effective, prudent approach that takes into consideration the city’s other needs. It would also put the School Board in a better position to address salary increases and class size. The two expansions would cost an estimated $12 million, compared with $35 million to $45 million for a new school, plus $1.5 million a year in operating costs.
Meanwhile, the city is also facing the need for more police officers, a new fire station, nearly $1 million for the jail and the possibility of either building its own wastewater treatment plant or joining with Spotsylvania County to renovate the plant in Massaponax, said Assistant City Manager Mark Whitley. The city uses the FMC Wastewater Treatment Plant in Spotsylvania, but it is getting close to the end of its useful life. A new or renovated plant could cost between $40 million and $70 million.
“The schools are a central core to our community, but other things we may not have much choice with,” Whitley said.
Council member Kerry Devine asked how much real estate taxes would have to rise to pay for a new elementary school. Whitley said they’d go up about 8 cents at today’s rate for the building and about 5 cents for operations.
Councilman Matt Kelly pointed out that two of the city’s biggest debts are for construction of James Monroe and Lafayette, which won’t be paid off until 2030.
“I don’t want people to leave here thinking we’re not doing everything we can,” he said. “I’m not asking for you to agree, but to understand what we as a council are facing.”
Councilman Graham questioned Moseley’s enrollment projections. He said the firm assumes that the percentage of children who are born at Mary Washington Hospital and enroll in city schools will remain steady, when that hasn’t been the case since the Idlewild neighborhood was developed. He also said that it doesn’t take into consideration the recent explosion of residential development in the city, which could cause what he termed a similar “shock” to the school system.
Several council members said Moseley did look at future residential growth when making its enrollment projections, but all agreed to have the company answer questions at another public meeting, possibly when Baroody presents his proposed budget to City Council on March 12.
“I’m glad that everybody’s here tonight, and I’m sad that there weren’t as many people at the School Board meeting because, as I said, we’re getting what the School Board approved or recommended. That’s what we’re getting tonight,” said Councilman Chuck Frye Jr. “I’m glad to see everybody’s engaged tonight because it does make a difference.”