City Council, School Board meet to strategize for the future

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, December 27, 2023

City and Suffolk Public School leaders gathered together to plan for the future, with a tense wrap-up. The Suffolk School Board and the Suffolk City Council, along with SPS Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III and Suffolk City Manager Albert S. Moor II, held a special joint work session on Wednesday, Dec. 6, to discuss ways to meet the needs that intertwine the city and school division. Both City and School officials provided presentations to discuss the proposed SPS School Board FY 2025-2034 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and issues with school overcapacity.

Both SPS Chief Financial Officer Wendy Foresman and SPS Director of Facilities Planning and Maintenance Terry Napier presented the Proposed SPS School Board FY 2025-2034 CIP detailing the school’s plan submission to the city. 

“Remember, please, that this is a one-year plan for 10 years. Every year we resubmit, every year we make new decisions, so it’s a one-year [plan] for 10 years,” Foresman said.

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Napier’s presentation detailed the submitted School Board priority projects for major repairs and replacements throughout five and 10 years. Listed school projects included additions for Northern Shores Elementary and Nansemond River High School, a renovation for the College and Career Academy at Pruden, and replacements for Elephant’s Fork Elementary School, Kilby Shores Elementary School, Forest Glen Middle School, Nansemond Parkway Elementary, John Yeates Middle School and the currently ongoing John F. Kennedy Middle School replacement project. The five year subtotal of all projects is currently $144,168,163, while the 10 year subtotal sits at $452,824,479.

Suffolk Interim Director of Budget Charles Meeks detailed the CIP process timeline from September through April: With the submission of CIP requests, the City Manager and staff review the requests with subsequent meetings and prepare for the City Manager’s proposed CIP. 

“It’s developed over a 10 year horizon with an emphasis on the first five years and is updated annually,” Meeks said. “Some projects move forward, some of them get pushed back or eliminated, and then other new projects get proposed depending on funding opportunities …”

The proposed CIP was presented to the Planning Commission on December 19. Following the possible adoption of the plan on Jan. 16 of next year, it will be presented to the council on Feb. 7, with the public hearing and possible adoption by the council on February 21.

The next presentation focused on Projected Enrollment Trends. SPS Chief of Schools Dr. Stenette Byrd detailed a five year projection of school capacity compared to 2019-2020 school enrollment, showing increases and decreases. In projections to 2024/25, schools such as Kings Fork High School listed an increase from 1518 to 1597 and Lakeland High School saw a decline from 1049 to 986. Showing current enrollment for 2023/24, however, KFHS and LHS showed a projection increase in 1627 and 1053, respectively. Byrd then detailed the Functional Capacity, showing 2084 for KFHS and 1488 for LHS.

“This is how we calculate how many students we can serve in a school setting. This is very different from the building capacity in that we would not include things like the cafeteria, the auditorium, many of our exploratory classes because those are designed for students to float through,” Byrd said. “You also may have noticed parentheses next to some of the school names. Those are the number of mobile trailers that we have. So those are also not included in functional capacity.”

Focusing on the Facility Condition Index, Naiper explained that each school was assigned an FCI score when he and his team conducted a facility study. RRMM Architects Principal Mark Probst explained that each FCI score shown during the presentation was calculated by “taking the total deferred maintenance costs” over time periods. Providing recommendations, Napier emphasized continuing to replace aging schools and schools using mobile units through the CIP process. Likewise, utilizing the school building’s “functional programmatic” capacity based on the available instructional space and specific use of those spaces for planning. Finally, considerations were noted for changing the city Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Level of Service school standards from building total square feet per student to instructional square feet per student.

“There’s a lot of things that we do in instruction now that we didn’t do, even five, 10 or 15 years ago … things are different. They do STEM activities, they do all kinds of collaborative things in these classrooms, and even the recommended VDOE number for classroom size, I think, is too small,” Napier said. “So, I think it would be worth talking about with our instructional folks what would be a good square footage number for instructional spaces and make that our level of service rather than the total number of square footage on the building.”

Deputy City Manager Kevin Hughes provided the final presentation detailing the Student Generation and School Capacity Projection. Providing a recommended projection for student enrollment, SPS is projected to have over 672 new students over the next 10 years. Reflecting on the 2010-2013 period, Hughes’ presentation detailed that 6,800 new residential units were added over the 13 year period. Likewise, new populations saw 14,467 citizens added, while the school population saw 17 fewer students over the period. The total listed population from 2010 to 2030 saw the Suffolk Population at 84,820 in 2010, 94,685 in 2020, and 99,287 in 2023, with a 2030 projection of 102,571. School populations saw 14,507 in 2010, 13,869 in 2020, 14,490 in 2023, and a recommended projection of 14,995 as well as a moderate projection of 14,525.

Discussions among Council and Board members saw unified concerns on capacity issues, from Board Members Judith Brooks-Buck and Karen Jenkins expressing thanks for the council’s funding toward the JFK Middle School Reconstruction project to Board Member Dawn Marie Brittingham expressing a desire for collaborations to continue with City Council. Board Vice Chair Heather Howell expressed how the board and council share the same concerns.

“We’re all here with the same set of concerns, and our job that we’re elected to do is to come up with solutions … I just ask as we are growing as a city, people have been moving here for years. People have been moving here from places like Virginia Beach, Great Bridge, Greenbrier because it’s crowded out there and there’s traffic,” Howell said. “And they move here for some fresh air and some land and space to raise their families and go to schools and … are we becoming that? I think we have to find balance in growth and being able to handle the growth that we are allowing in our city, in our schools, and in the community because it’s taxing on all the resources that you all are responsible for. I don’t envy your position at all.”

Vice Mayor Lue Ward Jr asked why it has taken so long for the School Board and City Council to meet.

“It’s not to disrespect nobody, Ward said. “It’s Dec. 5th. Why [did it take] so long for us to meet? I have a problem with that. I have a problem with our CIP. We have done our CIP. We have met and did everything that the city asked and we had to do with our money, how far our money [goes] without raising taxes. Now… here we go again with a joint meeting, and sometimes I feel… that people look at council like we don’t want to work with the School Board, or we don’t want to help the children. And I’m not going to let you all keep lying about what it assumed to me, because it hurt me when I hear this.”

Ward pointed out the Education Committee as a way to work together, where the School Board’s resolution appointing a member to serve as a member of the committee saw a failing vote of 3 to 4. Board Chair Tyron Riddick said he “himself” requested a joint meeting twice, by email and in person. 

“We requested joint meetings, and we requested them to be quarterly, as we all said in this room the last two times we’ve been here. But we can’t force anyone to come to the table. So we’re requesting and it is, I believe all of the board members hope that we meet together as often as possible,” Riddick said. “I keep hearing the reference of the Education Committee. The Board has took its stand on the Education Committee and that is the will of the Board. But we’re willing to meet in a joint meeting, but when we’re requesting joint meetings that’s not being allowed, we can’t call it ourselves unless you all are willing to come to the table. But I did everything on behalf of the Suffolk School Board just as my predecessor has done to come to the table.”

After a tense conversation between Ward and Riddick, Mayor Michael D. Duman confirmed that Riddick requested a joint meeting but that it “didn’t happen.”

“Having experienced several joint meetings in the past, without having some more discussion before that, without having issues brought to the respective bodies, it’s hard to accomplish anything in two or three hours, with 15 people sitting at a table trying to discuss alternatives that can be rather complex, time consuming, involves staff, etc,” Duman said.

Duman followed that the Education Committee was established in 1999 and that nobody refused to attend the meetings when they were attended previously and that it was amended to “reflect more accurately what the goals of that committee should be.” Likewise, he expressed that the committee does not have any power and is there for research and to “relay information from the body to the committee on both sides and then relay that information to the respective bodies” to provide a consensus. 

“And I still cannot understand why there is not a willingness to take advantage of any time you have an opportunity to meet and work collaboratively with a body that is supposed to be working collaboratively, and that’s in regards to the Education Committee,” Duman said. “Not only do I consider it a slap in the face that ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ and this fact that ‘Well, you only have two people or three people.’ Nobody is speaking for the Board, and certain members with that opinion were already on boards that were only two people on them or three people on them.” 

Duman continued.

“We can have another joint meeting. We can have one every three months, but this was more of an informal meeting than it was actually accomplishing anything,” he ended.

Council Member Shelley Butler-Barlow and SPS Board Member Phyllis Byrum could not attend the meeting.