Hugh Mercer (copy)

Hugh Mercer Elementary School Feb. 13, 2019.

Fredericksburg parents who have urged the School Board and City Council to build a new school secured a partial solution to easing overcrowding at Hugh Mercer Elementary.

City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve school officials’ request for an additional $389,682 this year, mainly for buses, so the approximately 70 Virginia Pre-School Initiative students can be moved from Hugh Mercer back to the renovated Walker–Grant Center next school year.

Currently, there are no buses available that could accommodate the VPI schedule if the program was at WGC.

A number of parents have pushed for moving VPI students back to that building. The change is expected to free up four classrooms at the elementary school, and the auxiliary gym will no longer have to serve as classroom space.

Assistant City Manager Mark Whitley said the city was able to find revenue, including overdue interest payments, that weren’t forecast in the budget to pay for three new buses plus drivers, fuel and insurance.

The Walker–Grant Center, which reopened in 2017, houses school administration offices, plus Fredericksburg Regional Head Start and Early Childhood Special Education classes. Both programs are an hour shorter than VPI’s, and VPI students will have a separate bus route next year.

“I’m glad that we’re addressing this issue. I think it’s overdue,” Council member Kerry Devine said. “I’ll add by saying I wish it had been part of the budgeting process rather than being brought to our attention by staff and parents at Hugh Mercer. Now it’s another $300,000 to solve a problem that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

Several parents have told the School Board and council that they want the city to raise taxes to build a third elementary school. They have complained that expanding Lafayette Upper Elementary and James Monroe High schools, which the School Board has approved, merely puts a Band–Aid on the overcrowding problem. It would add only classrooms, not expand other parts of the buildings, such as the cafeterias and gyms.

“Growth should reflect our community values. Our elementary schools need long-term solutions, not a quick fix,” Jennifer Woollven, a mother of two city students, told the council. She said overcrowded conditions make it hard for teachers to innovate, make personal connections with students and establish trust.

School and city officials decided to build additions instead of a new school after several joint meetings in which they considered the city’s other pressing needs, including a new fire station and wastewater treatment improvements.

Their decision was based partly on Moseley Architects’ school enrollment projections, which several parents have said underestimate future enrollment growth. They added that Lafayette would be at capacity by the time the addition is completed.

City Council will hold a special meeting on the firm’s school capacity report at 7 p.m. March 20 in its chambers in City Hall, 715 Princess Anne St.

Caitie Finlayson, the mother of a Hugh Mercer student, has shared her research about Moseley’s methodology with both City Council and the School Board. She said that the firm’s recommendation was based on what she called “very conservative enrollment estimates.”

She added that she supports raising taxes to pay for a new school, although she realizes that there is “significant income inequality in our city.”

City Manager Tim Baroody’s proposed $100.4 million general fund budget for the coming year, which he unveiled at Tuesday’s meeting, does include a tax increase and a $1 million increase in funding for city schools.

But the capital improvement plan portion includes funds to expand Lafayette Upper Elementary and James Monroe High, not to build a new school. He said that those two projects would ensure the school system can meet its needs for the next several years.

Baroody said the total requested general fund budget for fiscal 2020 included 19 new, full-time positions and totaled $115.5 million, which reflects the growth in demand for services and maintenance needs in the city. The more modest budget he presented to the council Tuesday is still 4.57 percent higher than the current budget, and would raise the real estate tax from 80 cents to 84 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Each penny is worth approximately $400,000 in additional revenue. Three cents of the tax increase would go toward school and general government expenses, while 1 cent of it would go toward federally mandated stormwater management.

If City Council approves the proposal as is at its May 14 meeting, the tax on a home assessed at $200,000 would rise from $2,000 to $2,100, while the tax on a $350,000 home would go from $2,800 to $2,940. Real estate taxes on a commercial property assessed at $2 million would see an $800 increase, up from $16,000 this year.

Baroody also recommended raising the city’s solid waste collection fee to cover increased costs. The annual increase for most customers will be $24.50. High-density customers will pay $20.50 more per year.

Other budget highlights include:

  • A recommended 2.5 percent pay raise as a cost-of-living increase for city employees that will go into effect July 1.
  • Three new full-time positions.
  • $960,017 increase in funding for the Rappahannock Regional Jail.
  • $540,000 in additional funds for the Children’s Services Act.
  • $349,580 in additional funding for debt service.

Baroody encouraged residents to attend City Council’s upcoming work sessions on the budget. These will include a one to be held at 5:30 p.m. April 16 in City Hall, Room 218, before the public hearing on the budget at 7 that night in council chambers. Council members will cast their final vote on the budget May 14.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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