Culpeper joint meeting: Both boards banter on building more schools

The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors and the Culpeper County Public School Board held a joint meeting at the Culpeper County High School library on Thursday, January 22. The main topics of discussion were the forthcoming school district budget for FY16 and the need for building new facilities for elementary and secondary school populations.

School Superintendent Dr. Bobbi Johnson gave a brief synopsis of proposed needs of the district and projected state revenue. While the revenue proposed in the governor’s budget is approximately $44,000,000, it is still early to know what the legislative impact will be.

Most of the discussion in the joint meeting concerned whether to build a new school complex with both elementary and middle school facilities or adding on to current facilities. In the recent past, the school population has increased an average of two percent. This year the population growth was overestimated and is in a slight decline. The main concern is whether the school population will grow or remain on the decline. There is some question whether the decline is an anomaly or a trend.

In describing school population rates, Dr. Johnson said it was a toss up as to which is growing more, the elementary schools or the middle schools. Most class sizes, hovering around 30, are at capacity.

Chairperson Elizabeth Hutchins stated that it is not desirable to have elementary schools with 1,000 students. Now most elementary schools have approximately an average population of 600. She said, â??Larger is not better.â?

Robert Houck, now vice chairperson of the School Board, said that the special education population of approximately 10 percent is â??growing phenomenally.â? These classes use a lot of resources and space due to governmental mandates.

Instead of building new schools, Supervisor Jack Frazier (Cedar Mountain) asked school board members, “Do we have enough space to add on [to schools] to meet current needs.” Hutchins responded that adding on classroom space also impacts common spaces. She said that such spaces as cafeterias and gymnasiums would also have to be enlarged.

Betsy Smith told supervisors that her constituency always comments that the county should look ahead when planning for school population needs, instead of always trying to catch up in meeting the needs of the district.

Supervisor Chairman Steve Nixon said that he preferred a stop-gap as new school facilities would add over $2 million to the debt service. He said, â??We need to talk about it exhaustively and come up with a good plan.”

The question bantered about the table was whether it was more cost-effective to build than to add â??piecemealâ? and still have to build at a later date.

Frazier said, â??Whatever we decide has to be for the whole community.â? He suggested to â??buy some more time to get rid of some debt before we have more debt.â?

County Administrator Frank Bossio remarked, â??The need has to drive what you are going to do.â? He suggested looking at short term and long term strategies. The Board of Supervisors asked Russell Houck, executive director of student services with the school district, to look again at the kindergarten classes, which are down 54 students this year. They also asked the School Board to look into the costs and feasibility of making physical additions to current facilities.

The next regular joint meeting is scheduled for March 19 at 6:00 p.m. with location to be announced.

Alice Felts is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. She may be reached at</em>