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Camden officials face school facility decision

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Thursday, September 19, 2019

CAMDEN — Eager to get moving on a school facility project, Camden officials plan to meet next month to work out details for getting a construction bond referendum on the county ballot in November 2020.

County and school officials are striving to meet a Dec. 20 deadline to get a bond referendum on the ballot for the November 2020 election. That’s a tall order, but Rick Ott of M.B. Kahn Construction told county commissioners and school board members at a joint meeting this week that meeting the deadline is possible if they agree on the construction project’s details at their next joint meeting, which is slated for Oct. 10.

At that meeting, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. in the Camden County High School media center, Camden Schools Superintendent Joe Ferrell plans to present the school district’s two preferred options for the school project. Ferrell will consult members of the Camden Board of Education on narrowing the options to two.

Ott’s report to the boards of commissioners and education Monday described five options for meeting the school district’s long-range facility needs. M.B. Kahn is the firm the county hired earlier this year to perform a long-range facilities study for the school district.

Under Kahn’s plan, “Option 1” calls for constructing a new K-3 facility in the northern part of the county; moving athletic facilities to the new 60-acre site the county has identified as a site for a new high school; and expanding the existing high school and existing middle school. The entire project would cost between $46 million and $48 million.

Ott said he doesn’t recommend expanding the current high school and middle school campuses because there really is no space for expansion. In addition, he said, parts of the high school are nearly 100 years old and not designed for the way education happens today, especially in career and technical education.

Ott said he brought Option 1 to the boards because it is the least costly of any of the options and he wanted them to have a full range of options to consider.

The other options are:

Option 2 would cost between $55 million and $57 million. It calls for purchasing property for a new K-3 school; building a new high school on the 60-acre site; converting the current high school campus to a school for grades 7-8 (leaving some space at the current high school that could be converted to another use); converting the current middle school to an intermediate school; and making the current intermediate school for grades 3-4 and Grandy Primary School for grades K-2.

Option 3 would cost between $53 million and $55 million. It calls for building a new high school on the 60-acre site; buying property for a new K-3 school; putting grades 6-8 at the current high school, freeing up the current middle school for other uses; and treating Grandy Primary and Camden Intermediate School as a single campus serving grades K-5.

Option 4 would cost between $36 million and $38 million. It calls for purchasing property for a new K-3 school; building a new high school for grades 10-12; converting the current high school to one for grades 6-8; placing 9th-grade students and Camden Early College at the current middle school campus; and treating Grandy Primary and Camden Intermediate School as a single campus serving grades K-5.

Option 5 would cost between $45 million and $47 million. It calls for purchasing a site for a northern K-3 school; constructing a new high school for grades 9-12; continuing to use athletic facilities at the existing high school for high school athletics; converting the existing high school into one for grades 6-8; making the Camden Middle School site available for other uses; and combining Grandy Primary and Camden Intermediate schools into a single K-5 school.

Although much of the discussion by county and school officials over the past year has focused on whether the county needs to build a new high school or a new elementary school, the underlying answer to the question in all five options is “both.”

Ott said the two boards now need to review the proposed options, determine the best option and then establish a timeline. They’ll also need to develop a financial strategy for funding the project.

The firm’s analysis projects that the school district will add 236 students within 10 years and 468 within 20 years.

“Ultimately it’s going to be a function of how fast those kids come,” Ott said.

School board member Sissy Aydlett asked Ott how he came up with the projected student numbers.

Ott said he based it on the number of new homes that have been permitted in Camden. He then figured the number of students per household at the same ratio now used by the county.

Growth is pushing down from Virginia into Camden County, Ott said. That growth is likely to start bringing some new students into the schools within two years, he said.

Ott said about 30 percent of the new growth in students will need to attend a new school in the northern part of the county. The other 70 percent will be distributed through the district’s current schools, he said.

“You have to solve the problem of growth at every school in your district,” Ott said.

There is limited potential for expansion at the existing school campuses, according to Ott.

Both boards seem supportive of building the facilities needed for Camden students while also making sure the county’s available funds are used in the most cost-effective way. County officials note that three years ago they increased the property tax rate by 3 cents and in so doing increased annual funding to the schools for operating expenses from $2.3 million to $2.6 million.

Ott said M.B. Kahn has been involved with the Camden County Schools for 20 years or so. The community is rich in history, has a lot of community pride, but also is changing as people move out of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, Virginia, into the northern part of the county, he said.

Ott said Kahn has performed more than 100 long-range facility plans that focus on the long-range outlook in order to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money.

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