Even if sales tax hike falls through, school renovations promised

Published 8:30 am Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Prince Edward County officials plan to renovate Prince Edward Elementary, even if the proposed sales tax increase doesn’t go through. That was the statement delivered at the Wednesday, Dec. 7 meeting of the Prince Edward County School Board.

“My marching orders from the Board of Supervisors are to get the building renovated,” said Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley. “I’ve heard nothing different. So when we talk with our folks at Davenport about financing and things like that we’re still working towards that.”

At the November 2021 meeting, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with plans to renovate the elementary school with an estimated cost of $30 million. The Board of Supervisors chose this as a middle option instead of only fixing the roof or tearing down and building a new school.

The question still remains how to pay for that $30 million. As The Herald detailed last month, county officials are looking into increasing sales tax by 1% across the board, but that’s not a guarantee. Previous county administrator Wade Bartlett floated the idea in 2019. Last year, supervisors also expressed interest in moving forward, with a bill getting filed in the General Assembly to make it happen. That bill failed, so now the county is trying a different approach to get it through.

THE CURRENT OPTION

Specifically, what they want is to be added to a very exclusive list. In Virginia, a city or county has to get permission from the General Assembly to increase sales tax. First the Assembly has to pass a bill, then local residents have to vote on it in the next election. After last month’s elections, eight counties and one city have the authority to increase sales tax to fund school repairs. They include Charlotte County, Gloucester County, Halifax County, Henry County, Mecklenburg County, Northampton County, Patrick County, Pittsylvania County and the City of Danville.

At their Thursday, Nov. 10 meeting, supervisors authorized county staff to pay Commonwealth Strategy Group $5,000 a month for four months. The idea is to draw attention to the request, to get more Assembly members in support.

In case the bill does not pass again in 2023, Stanley said county staff are still searching for other alternatives.

THE OTHER ALTERNATIVES

With no current answer on the sales tax, Stanley told the school board that supervisors have set aside $250,000 for the debt service for this project. This was done as a way of showing a commitment to seeing this project through. Stanley hopes that this money can eventually grow into an annual payment since it will probably be at least a year before they will have to start borrowing from the funds.

“So when you start paying the debt ideally over a couple of years, you can increase what you’re setting aside for that debt service payment then we can be ready once it gets here,” said Stanley.

School Board member Susan Kimbrough expressed her comfort at hearing that the Board is not relying on the sales tax to pass. Even if the House passes the bill, Prince Edward County residents will have to vote on it in the next election. Kimbrough noted that personal property taxes just came out and they were much higher this year, which may make people hesitant to approve more tax increases.

“This time last year, I would have said a 1% tax increase probably would have sailed through,” she said. “I’m not so sure about it now. So, I’m really glad to hear that even if that falls through, that we don’t end up with that source of funding, that the County is committed to still finding funding for renovating that building.”

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH PRINCE EDWARD ELEMENTARY?

The discussion over Prince Edward Elementary has been going on for more than a year now. The roof leaks, some classrooms are unusable and there are traffic problems due to the current design.

As county leaders look to figure out how to pay for renovations, school district staff and the school board are trying to determine what the new school would look like. After all, it’s hard to know how much you need to pay for renovations if you don’t have a full price tag on the cost.

In October, five architectural firms presented to design the project. Out of the five, district staff narrowed it down to two and finally to Moseley Architects.

Now they’re moving into Phase One. That means Moseley representatives will have several meetings with school personnel, as well as the community. They’ll take that information back and create a design from it. Residents can expect to see all of this happening in 2023.