New school could serve 800

Published 1:26 pm Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The proposed downsizing of one of two new schools planned for North Suffolk reflects a priority shift from building one larger middle school to responding to several School Board priorities, according to the city of Suffolk.

Proposed amendments to the city’s capital improvements plan, unveiled during a Planning Commission meeting on Dec. 16, would have the city begin funding design and construction of a new elementary school and a new middle school in fiscal year 2016.

Based on the new proposal, both new schools would open in time for the 2018-2019 school year.

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School Board Chairman Michael Debranski praised the move, which would advance plans for the middle school by a year or so and accelerated plans for the elementary school by more than five years, based on previous warnings from Suffolk Public Schools Facilities and Planning Director Terry Napier.

But some who have participated in official and unofficial discussions about overcrowding in existing North Suffolk schools were left wondering by one important detail within the city’s proposal.

While the current capital improvements plan cites a new middle school that would cater to 1,200 students, which is the size that had been reported to the School Board, the proposed amendment would expedite funding for a school with only half that capacity.

City spokesman Tim Kelley listed five projects that “comprehensive discussions” between city and school division officials over the past several months centered upon, including overcrowding at John Yeates Middle and Creekside Elementary schools; the age, condition and operating expense of Florence Bowser and Driver elementary schools; and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning needs at other existing schools.

Also discussed, according to Kelley, was the new middle school’s proposed site on Burbage Drive, which was set aside for a school during the original rezoning process for Harbour View.

The new middle school proposed in the CIP update would supplement, rather than replace, the overcrowded John Yeates Middle School. Kelley said the 600 students it would serve “is the minimum … needed to address overcrowding at (John) Yeates, while providing some additional capacity.”

According to Kelley, the city would aim to maximize the capacity by getting a more competitive deal through procuring the new middle and elementary schools together. He cited “a potential to add additional students, if cost savings are realized through the procurement phase.”

Seating 1,000 students — a capacity unchanged by the proposed CIP amendments — the new elementary school would replace Driver and Florence Bowser.

School Board Chairman Michael Debranski hopes that driving a better deal on design and construction would allow the city to increase the new middle school’s capacity to 800 students. He pointed to state requirements that may preclude building a much larger school at the selected site.

“Everybody would like to have an 800-student middle school if it’s possible, given the geographical and legal (constraints) on the property,” Debranski said.

He added that bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to middle schools.

“I really don’t want to go to 1,200 students,” he said. “Middle school kids need a little more love and care than elementary or even high school kids. I don’t want a school where I can’t really see the kids every day. I think 800 is a realistic size.”

According to Kelley, proposed changes to the CIP “reflect a shift from one single priority … to a broader funding approach to respond to several priorities of the School Board.”

School division officials are thankful for the city’s proposal, even though the new middle school would be significantly smaller compared to the existing plan, according to Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw.

“We are very appreciative of what is being proposed, and we are certain it will assist in overcrowding at (John Yeates Middle School),” Bradshaw stated.

She acknowledged the new plan has “less space for growth.” Asked when another new middle school would be required in that part of the city, she replied, “It really depends on the growth patterns.”

Debranski said the new middle school proposed in the city’s amended CIP would meet the need in North Suffolk for “probably 10 years.”

“At this point, it’s the best proposition that’s come forward in a long time in the timeframe we are dealing with,” he said. “We really need to relieve overcrowding.”

The school division plans to increase capacity with refurbishments at a number of older schools, and a new high school is slated for further in the future.

“We are going to continue to build for the next 10 or 15 years,” Debranski said.