Supervisors OK funds for school studies

WOODSTOCK – The Shenandoah County School Board can move forward on plans to adjust the attendance boundaries and study the division’s facilities.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 on Tuesday to grant a School Board request for $135,000 to pay consultants for the two efforts. Earlier in the meeting, supervisors heard support and opposition from the public on the request.

George Burgess, who worked part-time as a janitor for Shenandoah County Public Schools through March of this year, urged supervisors to help fix problems he’s seen first-hand at some of the facilities. Ken Cruise also spoke against the county spending money on the studies.

School Board member Katheryn Freakley and Seth Coffman, chairman of the board of directors for the Shenandoah Forum and affiliated with the Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools, spoke favorably about the request and the need for the studies.

Rather than put the $135,000 into existing maintenance needs, such as failing boilers or leaking roofs as two supervisors recommended, the majority of the board sided with school supporters.

The School Board plans to pay $35,000 to DeJong-Richter to perform the boundary adjustment seen as a short-term solution to lopsided attendance among the division’s facilities. The remaining $100,000 will go to pay the consulting firm HBA Architecture & Design Inc. to create a long-term master plan for the use of the division’s facilities.

Chairman David Ferguson, Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley and Supervisors Steve Baker and John R. “Dick” Neese voted in favor of the motion to provide the funding as requested. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz voted against the motion after debate that lasted more than a half hour. Neese made the motion seconded by Baker.

“I take this long-term study to be more than maintenance issues,” Neese said. “I take it to be how they can increase or better utilize the facilities they have and not just maintenance, and any time that that needs to be done you need to hire a professional that has unbiased opinions and no ties to the community so you can get a fair evaluation of the facilities and not have personalities become involved in it.”

Bailey asked Neese directly why the county and School Board need to spend the money on studies now. Baker tried several times to call for the question to vote on the motion. Neese said the boilers are maintenance issues, not facilities.

Ferguson argued that long-term studies provide helpful information and give the county a better idea of what problems are faced by the county and the school division and the cost to cover the needs. Ferguson criticized any push to put bandages on the problems to fix them in the short term.

Before the vote on the request, Bailey made a motion to give $10,000 to the School Board to buy software that would help the division complete the boundary adjustment. Shruntz supported the motion. The other supervisors did not and the motion failed by a 4-2 vote. At least one supervisor noted that $135,000 would not go far to pay for new boilers or to repair roofs.

Bailey and Shruntz argued that the money wouldn’t help the School Board solve immediate needs. Bailey said the school division has had two boilers fail at Central High School with one at Strasburg High School that failed and another nearing that point. Each boiler costs roughly $200,000. Shruntz also criticized the School Board’s use of one of the consultants, saying the firm has a record of pushing its clients to close or build new facilities.

Bailey said many people feel the School Board could walk the public through the boundary-adjustment process. The recently completed, short-term study showed deficiencies, Bailey said.

“That money needs to go to real solutions, immediate solutions that we know of now, because when this Strasburg High School boiler goes out, it’s either close the school, get a temporary (boiler) to keep the school open, which is what we did with Central (High School), until we can get two new boilers, and before the next budget they want to spent $100,000 on another study to tell us when to replace roofs,” Bailey said. “It just does not make sense to me.”

Helsley acknowledged the needs Bailey cited but said the county needs to look at the larger picture.

“Had we done this long-term study five years ago, we probably wouldn’t be in the boat that we’re in right now,” Helsley said. “But it’s more than fixing a roof. It’s a study to look at the entire system. Everything that goes with it.”

Bailey said she disagreed with Helsley and noted that the capital improvement plans are designed to address facility needs. She noted that the county is playing catch-up and is behind by about $9 million in maintenance needs.

Baker pointed out that supervisors has over the past few years declined to return roughly $1 million to the School Board in unspent funds that the division could have used for the immediate maintenance needs.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

Clarification: Seth Coffman was identified in a Shenandoah County supervisors story on Wednesday as chairman of the board of directors for the Shenandoah Forum and affiliated with the Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools.  He said he was speaking as an individual citizen and was not speaking as a representative of those groups.