School facilities study topic of joint meeting

Published 9:52 pm Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Suffolk City Council and School Board members appear to be on board with hiring a consultant to perform a school facilities needs assessment, review school attendance zones and examine student generation rates following discussion at a joint meeting Wednesday.

City Manager Patrick Roberts presented to the council and the board a plan similar to one that has been done in Chesapeake. It would, according to Roberts’ presentation, “provide an assessment of school facilities, capacity utilization and attendance boundaries resulting in a long-term comprehensive plan that prioritizes school facility needs.”

Roberts said the goal would be to have a plan detailing a facilities master plan for a minimum of 10 years, paralleling the city’s 10-year Capital Improvements Program and Plan while assessing the present condition of all school and support facilities to support the current and planned instructional program. It would also, he said, prioritize capital improvement projects and potential school attendance zone adjustments to most effectively use school division facilities, and it would also provide recommendations on where new and expanded facilities would be needed.

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“To me, it’s a good place to start,” said Councilman Roger Fawcett of the study. “We need a good starting point to get a good measuring stick of where we’re at.”

While Chesapeake’s study cost $720,000 to look at that city’s needs for 49 schools, Roberts estimates a similar study for Suffolk’s 21 schools would cost $350,000, with the final cost to be determined by what proposals the city receives to conduct such a study.

“What you’re going to get out of this is really some guidance from an expert perspective based on trends that we see all over the country,” Roberts said about the attendance zone review, “things like aligning clusters of students, different age groups based in particular on housing types, neighborhood types, development patterns.

“They would analyze and identify potential boundary location changes, (and) they may look at certain programs that exist in certain geographic areas and make recommendations on those.”

Roberts said the study would also ask the consultant to determine whether the city’s student generation rates are adequate.

He said the next step in the process would be for council and the board to come up with funding sources to pay for the study. Once that’s done, he said the request for proposals for a firm to conduct the study would be advertised. Then, he and superintendent’s designee Dr. LaToya Harrison would appoint staff to serve on an RFP review committee. City and school division staff would jointly review the RFPs and make a recommendation of a contract award to both the council and board.

Roberts said it would be a 30 to 45 day RFP process, which would allow a consultant to be on board by late fall, with the study to be completed sometime around spring 2020.

“One of the things that I know that the city needs as an early deliverable is some better information on the student generation rate,” Roberts said, “and a related matter of how the city staff determines per pupil cost when we’re making plans for development and CIP planning.”

Board member David Mitnick asked how the study would influence the current capital improvements plan. Roberts said the plan the board and council would see later this year will look a lot like it has for the past couple of years.

Roberts said he has had informal discussions with city and school division staff about why he wants to proceed with the study, and noted that it is ultimately a long-term investment in the school division.

He said it would be easy to conceive, based on the past 10 years’ worth of spending, that the city would spend $100 million to $150 million in the next 10 years on school facilities.

“There’s no good reason not to go along with the plan,” said Councilman Lue Ward. “I think it’s a good plan.”

Board member Karen Jenkins said the plan is a great one, and she hopes that whatever consultant performs the study will not be biased, and will not have any personal stake with the city or school division.

“I’m excited by this because we’re in a position now where we have new school board members, we’re searching for a new superintendent, and I’m just hoping for great things for Suffolk Public Schools,” Jenkins said.

Roberts said one potential reason not to go through with the study would be that neither the city nor school division would rely on it and it would only collect dust. Another would be that it would identify far more in school needs than the city could reasonably afford to pay at one time.

“We may create a public expectation that we’re going to get a report that says, go and build $600 million worth of school facilities,” Roberts said. “We can’t do that. We would have to agree on the front end this is a long-term effort. It’s going to prioritize it, and it’s going to tell us how we can bite off $5 million, $20 million of investments, one step at a time. As long as we are comfortable with that, I’m 100 percent supportive with moving ahead.”

However, he said city and school division staff believe the study will be a good tool to help with future school facility decisions.

“We have a lot of faith that this will be a good work product and a great tool,” Roberts said. “The community will appreciate it, and it may facilitate better long-term agreement between the city and the school board on CIP decisions.”