City Council, School Board in joint session

Published 11:06 pm Friday, March 22, 2019

The Suffolk City Council and School Board met in a joint session Wednesday to discuss school-related needs and how they can work together.

The meeting provided the council updates on the School Board’s just-approved $173.3 million budget and capital improvement projects that are ongoing and upcoming in the school division.

Discussion centered on several topics, including needs at Northern Shores Elementary School, energy performance contracting and what to do with the empty Driver school now that the Excel Academy program is set to be housed at one of the city’s middle schools.

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Terry Napier, the director of facilities and planning for Suffolk Public Schools, noted that a discussed 12-classroom addition would increase the school’s capacity by about 75 people. That number included adding 250 new seats but subtracting the 125 that would be lost from eliminating the mobile units and another 50 from two classrooms that would be lost with the expansion. That would cost $10.2 million for a net of 10 additional classrooms, Napier said.

Napier noted, however, that the School Board favored a 20-classroom addition, which would also eliminate the need for mobile units and would lose two classrooms, making a net of 18 classrooms and increasing capacity by 275 students. It would add $4 million to the cost.

He said with around 1,000 housing starts approved, even the increased capacity for a 20-room addition would not be enough, and if that area of the city continues to grow, the School Board may have to consider other options, including building a new school.

“With that number of permits in the pipeline, it wouldn’t be enough, but 275 would get us a long way,” Napier said.

Councilman Donald Goldberg asked if the cost of the additions at Northern Shores Elementary would bring improvements to the parking. Napier said the cost figures did include parking, and that the school has space to add enough parking capacity.

However, Councilman Roger Fawcett said the School Board should look at the possibility of building a new school instead of adding onto Northern Shores Elementary, and Councilman Tim Johnson said the school division has needs at other schools to consider also.

Others, including Councilman Mike Duman and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, said the School Board should consider redistricting as a way to alleviate capacity issues.

City Manager Patrick Roberts said he expected growth in Northern Shores Elementary’s area has leveled off over the last two years.

“We need to develop a better methodology in determining what types of housing, and locations of housing, are more likely to trigger overcrowding at the various schools at all levels — middle, elementary and high,” Roberts said, “so that I can do a better job of advocating for additional construction dollars wherever you need them.”

Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney said that capacity numbers change year-to-year at schools, which “could very well be” due to program changes within those schools.

Duman said it was encouraging for both elected bodies to work together on a continual basis, and he acknowledged the issues at Northern Shores Elementary.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to satisfy your needs and do this as fiscally responsible as we can,” Duman said.

However, Duman said he wanted to bring up the energy performance contract to discuss again, in light of numerous maintenance issues with roofs that the school division has in its capital improvements plan.

“It would allow the school system to complete much of this work and use the energy savings, which would go on forever,” Duman said.

Fawcett said that with the former Driver Elementary School not being used, the building should be torn down and the property transferred to the city to determine a best use for it.

“I do not think and see any money being put into it in the future,” Fawcett said.

Whitney said the program for the Excel Academy to go in grades 5-6 at a middle school would be a small-scale pilot program in its first year, and if needed, the school division could ask to renovate Driver.

Both council and board members said they appreciated the opportunity to sit down and work together to foster a positive working relationship.

“I’m excited that we are able to come in one room and sit down and have a respectful dialogue about having Suffolk moving forward,” said board member Tyron Riddick.

Said board member Lorita Mayo: “This is an excellent opportunity for both groups to work together. I’d like to see more of this.”

Councilmembers said the meeting was productive and they look forward to working with the School Board. Mayor Linda T. Johnson said the plan is for the two groups to hold joint meetings on a quarterly basis.

“With all the issues we have, with all the things that we need to work on … there’s an awful lot of good things being done in our schools,” Johnson said.