People who don’t live in, or have youngsters in, Westmoreland County may not understand why the recent approval for a new high there means so much to folks there.
To fully get why the contract approval of $44.5 million to build a new Washington and Lee High School in Montross is such a game changer, it helps to know when the main hodgepodge of the existing W&L was built in 1931, 1940, 1970 and 1998.
Darryl Fisher, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, joined a handful of school and county officials earlier this week to talk about the new high school. Construction is expected to start by October and take 24 months to complete.
Depending on how that construction proceeds, students would most likely start at the new school in the second semester of 2022. If weather is kind and a month or more could be pared from the finish date, students could begin there in fall 2021.
The school will sit on about 36 acres along State Route 3 in the middle of Montross, within sight of the existing high school. A new county park is being built behind the new school on 67 acres of the 103-acre tract purchased by the county. The park will include a picnic area, a pavilion, a paved walking trail and a half-dozen ballfields that can be shared by the high school baseball and softball teams.
“Contrary to what many in the county have said, a new school was on the radar when I came on the board in 1992,” Fisher said, noting that a new judicial center, water and sewer improvements, an industrial park and a regional jail also needed to get done. “It took us a long time to get those done and put all the pieces together for this school, but we’re excited that it’s now happening.”
Some proponents of the new school were dismayed when an initial bid for the school came in at more than $51 million, an amount that credit rating agencies said would put too much stress on Westmoreland finances.
Westmoreland Superintendent Michael Perry said school and county officials joined the architect—Grimm + Parker of Charlottesville—in rounds of “value engineering” that trimmed millions from the construction cost.
Much of those savings will come from things students and parents will never see. Costs were trimmed by redesigning the HVAC system, using four inches of concrete instead of eight, moving water lines, using less-expensive materials and rebidding several subcontracts.
A second approach that would be noticeable was delaying the construction of a football stadium, soccer field and track at the high school complex, and putting in the space for a performing arts center to seat nearly 500, but not initially equipping or lighting it. There is space on the grounds for athletic practice fields.
Norm Risavi, Westmoreland’s county administrator, noted that the supervisors are also approving a contingency fund for the construction of just under $1.8 million. He said architects have advised that most unexpected problems that could cut into that contingency money would likely occur at the start of the project, “as the school is coming up out of the ground.”
If they don’t—and all involved are hoping that’s the case—Risavi said that some of those delayed items could be added back in as construction progresses.
Perry said, “We’re expecting that to be the case. Based on the track record of the architects, we don’t think most of that contingency money will be needed. We think and hope that we will be able to have football, track and soccer restored. It’s what we’re counting on.”
Perry and Cathy Rice, Westmoreland’s assistant school superintendent, were excited to talk about what will be included in the school.
In addition to 38 classrooms and teaching spaces wired and equipped for any service and equipment teachers need, they said there will also be a host of spaces where groups and teams of students can learn together.
“Some of those will be inside, some outside,” said Rice, noting that there will be seating in outdoor areas between sections of the school, as well as steps and the walking trail that could serve as a setting for environmental and other instruction.
Though the performing arts center won’t be fully built, she said spaces for band, choir, art and performing arts instruction will be, adjacent to the proposed performing arts space. The school will be two stories tall in the academic wings. The library, gym, cafeteria and eventually, the performing arts center, will be two stories tall, but have just one level.
Perry said two things W&L students are particularly excited about are having bathrooms on each hallway, and windows in classrooms and the cafeteria.
“Bathrooms on each hall doesn’t sound like a big deal, but to the young ladies in our focus groups, having more than one bathroom in the building was everything, said Perry. “And students are really excited about the windows in the cafeteria, being able to have sunlight come in.”
The two school officials said that while some parts of the complex have been delayed in the initial planning, none were instructional spaces.
To that end, there will be teaching spaces to handle the 500 or so students expected at the high school, four resource rooms, four collaborative instructional spaces, a cafeteria able to handle the school’s three lunch cycles, a library and media center, a gym with bleacher seats to handle 900 and a complete locker room complex.
Officials said cameras and a modern security system will let school officials know where all students are and keep them safe, and the school is designed so members of the community can use the theater and cafeteria spaces without access to the academic wing.
Perry said another facet of the school’s planning, done in a style that fits with that of existing county and other community buildings, is that it’s designed so classrooms can be added in the future.
Risavi noted that in addition to the financing the school’s construction, there will also be a separate $2.5 million loan to cover furniture, fixtures and equipment for the new W&L. The price of the county park will be a little more than $2 million, just under half of that covered by grant money.
Supervisor Russ Culver, who helped negotiate the purchase of the land for about $1 million, said the Ferdinand Chandler family did Westmoreland County a true service in not holding out for a higher price.
He and Risavi noted that the availability of water and sewer service to the school site from the Montross town system saves big money compared to other sites. They expressed gratitude to Montross officials who’ve worked with them to make the project happen.