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Council approves capital plan

Suffolk City Council members said they were blindsided by issues raised by Northern Shores Elementary School parents and staff during a public hearing Wednesday on the proposed $963.6 million Capital Improvements Program and Plan.

More than a dozen people during the public hearing described overcrowded cafeterias, non-classroom space being used for classrooms, leaks in mobile classrooms, long lines for the bathroom and parking lot safety issues at Northern Shores.

“We are thunderstruck,” said Councilman Tim Johnson. “We had no idea. We knew there was an issue with overcapacity, but … 243 kids overcapacity at Northern Shores? We can’t live with that. Something has to be done.”

Meg Diggs, president of the Northern Shores Elementary PTA and a volunteer at the school, said even if growth were taken out of the equation, the addition as proposed in the CIP would be inadequate.

“Honestly, it would not have been adequate three years ago on the city CIP,” Diggs said. “For several years, Northern Shores has had 14 displaced homerooms. That means that we have 14 classes using trailers outside, or crammed into small spaces that were never intended to be used for instructional spaces.”

She, like others at the public hearing, said traffic and parking at the school is a serious safety concern.

Northern Shores special education teacher Mallory Vega described leaking mobile units, rotting floor boards and moldy carpet. First-grade teacher April Dryden said she teaches in one of the rooms at the school that was never intended to be a classroom. Dryden said there are no options for her students to move, and the room doesn’t have a window in it.

Veronica Peek, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, said she has been teaching in a mobile unit for all 11 years that she has been there.

Two School Board members — David Mitnick and Sherri Story — also spoke during the public hearing to plead for a larger expansion.

“I think we have students in very dangerous situations,” Story said.

Councilman Lue Ward said he did not learn about many of the issues at Northern Shores Elementary until last week and said they need to be fixed.

“It’s not fair for these kids to be in this situation,” Ward said.

Councilman Mike Duman said the issues at Northern Shores Elementary did not suddenly arise, but it was only two years ago that Northern Shores was mentioned in the capital improvements plan.

“I do not believe that this situation with Northern Shores happened last week,” Duman said. “I don’t think it happened last month. I don’t think it happened last year. I don’t think it happened three years ago. This has been a gradual process.

“As homes are built, as students are generated, this has generated a problem. It created a problem. When the first mobile unit went behind that school, it started to create a problem.”

In September, the School Board voted to fund a 12-classroom expansion in its CIP plan. City Council had approved a plan in 2017 to begin the design phase during this fiscal year, but school division Executive Director of Finance Wendy Forsman said in September that the project had been delayed due to other priorities.

Two months later, the School Board voted unanimously in favor of a two-story addition to add 20 classrooms to create 450 new seats, at a cost of between $11.4 million and $12.2 million.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said the need at Northern Shores is compelling, but it will not be easy to fix.

“It’s really not that simple, but it is as simple as hearing you, seeing what your issues are, and figuring out and finding out what we can do to make this situation better for all of the students,” Johnson said. “And I’m quite sure that Northern Shores isn’t the only school that has some issues here.”

Residents, including several children, also voiced support during the public hearing for a new downtown library.

Denise Murden, who tutors for the Suffolk Literacy Council, said the downtown library has been a disappointment for her. She wants to see a new, modern library with meeting space.

“I hope you will continue to support the library, because it’s an integral part of our community,” Murden said.

During an earlier work session, City Council heard about the process to replace the current Morgan Memorial Library with a new library.

This followed discussion at a work session last month that focused heavily on a proposed downtown library as part of the proposed capital plan. Waller, Todd and Sadler Architects presented plans in January for a 45,305-square foot, $21.1-million library to go on West Washington Street.

In fiscal year 2020, the city would spend $1.9 million on design work for the new downtown library. In year two, there would be an additional $11.6 million spent, $4.1 million in the third year and an additional $3.6 million in the fourth year of the proposed 2020-2029 capital plan.

Director of Libraries Clint Rudy told council that not only is the library beyond capacity at 14,500 square feet — the smallest of main branch libraries in Hampton Roads — but also he receives complaints about it on a regular basis.

Citing 2017-2018 statistics, Rudy said more than 103,000 items were checked out at Morgan Memorial Library, with more than 56 percent of all items checked out coming from residents 17 and under.

“A new downtown library will give people a place to connect with each other, with their community and history and access the tools and ideas they need to dream big and lead Suffolk into the future,” Rudy said in his presentation to council.