The constant rumble of an outdated heating system can be heard in Ferry Farm Elementary School’s third-grade hallway.

The windowless, dimly lit corridor leads to a cramped office with a restroom that has been out of order for two weeks.

Built in 1955, it is the oldest elementary school wing in Stafford County—and not much, if anything, has physically changed over the years.

The school’s finished basement, built as part of a 1966 expansion, has also gone largely unchanged and poses health risks because it does not circulate fresh air during winter heating season. And a reading room in the basement includes its own bulky air-conditioning system, apparently installed in the 1990s to prevent a copy machine that used to be there from overheating.

Put plainly, Ferry Farm is in poor condition, or as Superintendent Scott Kizner recently said: “That school needs help.”

“This is where we should all be agreeing that children deserve better,” the superintendent added at a recent meeting.

But county leaders continue to go back and forth about exactly what should be done to the neighborhood school. The School Board reversed plans to rebuild the school earlier this year at the request of the Board of Supervisors, upsetting some parents who feel Ferry Farm is beyond repair.

The Board of Supervisors—which decides how much county tax money schools receive—met with the School Board recently to discuss the latest proposal to expand Ferry Farm and completely renovate its oldest wing by October 2020. Nothing got settled—and at least one supervisor wants to put a rebuild back on the table.

The new proposal would cost an estimated $2 million more than the $10.8 million supervisors earmarked for the project in September. Unlike the previous renovation plan, it would upgrade the basement’s mechanical system to address the health concerns, according to Rob Winstead of VMDO Architects, which the School Board hired to design the renovations.

Special and gifted education students meet in the basement, but only for up to two hours at a time, said School Board member Dewayne McOsker, whose George Washington District includes Ferry Farm.

Griffis–Widewater District Supervisor Jack Cavalier expressed concern with the increased renovation cost, saying he requested a breakdown of the project earlier this year but never received one.

“I truly believe Ferry Farm needs renovation money, I just don’t know how much,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for me to change that to any more dollars than what we’ve originally allotted.”

The School Board hopes to cover the additional cost by pushing back other projects, including $750,000 worth of repairs to Mountain View High School’s track. It’s unclear whether the School Board must receive supervisors’ permission to reorder the projects.

The improvements to Ferry Farm would also include a 7,650-square-foot addition with music and art classrooms and two first-grade classrooms. A previous proposal included a larger expansion with four first-grade classrooms, but the School Board scaled it back after getting higher-than-expected cost estimates.

Rock Hill District Supervisor Wendy Maurer questioned that expansion, citing recent enrollment figures that show the 620-student school at just 79 percent capacity.

“That just hurts my head,” she said of expanding an underused school.

Winstead, the consultant, explained that the music and art rooms do not meet “educational specifications,” which in layman’s terms means they are too small. The library would be expanded into the existing art room as part of the renovation.

George Washington District Supervisor Tom Coen said in an interview that, given the latest cost estimates, he thinks it’s worth exploring the possibility of rebuilding Ferry Farm as a 700-to-800-student school. He wants the school system to keep pushing ahead with the renovation but also price out a potential rebuild, which four years ago was estimated to cost $25 million.

“I think they can do all that analysis at the same time we keep moving forward with the renovation,” he said, noting that he wants to break ground this year whatever the outcome.

Coen, who won election in November, received criticism from his opponent for going along with plans to renovate rather than rebuild the school. He said before the election that he had two options: Vote to renovate Ferry Farm soon or wait at least another decade to rebuild it.

The School Board is proposing three phases of renovations and expansions to Ferry Farm at a total estimated cost of around $30 million. Phases 2 and 3 would be complete in 2026 and 2028 under that plan.

Stafford has poured tens of millions of dollars into other schools in recent years. North Stafford’s Moncure Elementary is being rebuilt and Falmouth, Grafton Village and Stafford elementary schools all received large-scale renovations.

McOsker worries that reversing course from Ferry Farm’s renovation plan now would delay things further, saying the constant flip-flopping has “left our wonderful community school … neglected.

“It’s now time to act for the betterment of our kids!” he wrote in an email.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com