BRISTOL, Va. — The Bristol Virginia City Council agreed Monday with a city School Board plan to hire additional maintenance workers to perform upgrades to three city elementary schools rather than contract an outside firm.

The consensus followed a nearly two-hour joint session between the two elected bodies that debated both the cost of previously-agreed-upon improvements and the potential cost of a new elementary school. Funds for this year would come from reserves, but, going forward, the council agreed to increase funding to cover the cost of the maintenance positions.

The council previously allocated $200,000 to fund installation of security vestibules and to upgrade one male and one female restroom to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards at Highland View, Stonewall Jackson and Washington-Lee elementary schools. However, last week, the lone bid for that work came in at $466,000, far exceeding even the reserve funds.

Superintendent Keith Perrigan asked the council to reconsider a previous request to allocate $86,000 for salaries and benefits to hire two additional school maintenance workers. The council reached a consensus but will not take official action until the next scheduled meeting. After the joint session, however, the School Board amended its 2019-20 operating budget to set aside the money for the new positions effective immediately.

The board also formally rejected the $466,000 bid from a Knoxville firm.

“We’ll get a posting prepared to get some folks hired,” Perrigan said after the meeting. “We’ll look for some community partnerships that we can possibly do some wage-sharing with as well. We’ll look at as many options as we can and try to get the right people hired. Hiring quickly may not be the best decision; we want to hire right.”

The original timetable for the improvements called for completing work at all three schools around Christmas break. Perrigan said the projects will now likely be finished in the spring.

“We want to make our kids as safe as possible as quickly as possible, and we want to provide accessibility, which has been the discussion for 2 1/2 years now. This is just a different path to getting there. I think it’s one we can live with in the short term, but we still have long-term issues,” Perrigan said.

Those long-term issues include the hope to consolidate at least two of the three aging school buildings into a single, centrally located school. The move has garnered general support among both bodies, but the City Council must weigh budget constraints before moving forward.

Councilman Kevin Wingard was the first to voice support for the hiring idea. He suggested something similar to the council earlier this summer to address critical maintenance issues and to help the city save money by not bidding out some projects.

Mayor Neal Osborne said he “guesses” this was a satisfactory solution.

“If you can get quality people in for the price Dr. Perrigan quoted, I think that’s fair and that’s good,” Osborne said. “I think the majority of us agree on what should happen. A lot of it is, how do you get where we need to be? We all agree we need to do the safety upgrades. We all agree we need to do the ADA upgrades. How do you get to the ultimate goal of a new school?”

Much of Monday’s debate centered on the value of investing in aging buildings versus closing two schools and constructing a new school somewhere near the center of the city.

Perrigan presented cost estimates for six options, including tearing down Highland View or Washington-Lee and building new on adjacent land the city already owns. He also presented four potential sites the city would have to acquire. Those estimates ranged from $11.3 million to $16.6 million, with a proposal to build a new school at the current Highland View site being the most expensive.

Both Wingard and Councilman Kevin Mumpower expressed support for the Highland View site because of its proximity to neighborhoods.

Vice Mayor Bill Hartley and Councilman Anthony Farnum asked about additional site options, but Perrigan said those six — plus the site adjacent to Van Pelt Elementary, which was previously rejected by the council — were the most promising of those that are available at this time.

“Everyone has a little bit different opinion about school location and cost and size and how to finance it. We’ll get there,” Board Chairman Steve Fletcher said. “If we’re going to slow down, I heard one of the other board members say we need to know ‘what’s the speed limit.’ It is painful waiting. We’re charged with taking care of the students and teachers and our community. We want a new school as bad as anybody, but City Council is the ones with the pocketbook.”

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