BRISTOL, Va. — Teachers in a Virginia High School special-needs classroom must use a homemade wooden ramp to push wheelchair-bound students up into a cramped restroom or change the students’ diapers.

In another part of the building, a series of ramps take the place of an elevator as the lone interior connection for wheelchair-bound students, family or staff between the majority of the school and the band room, gym and auditorium.

At Washington-Lee Elementary, anyone in a wheelchair must go outside and down a steep sidewalk to reach lower levels of the school. Built into a hillside, the school has four levels and no elevator.

At Washington-Lee, Highland View and Stonewall Jackson elementary schools, don’t bother looking for a handicapped-accessible bathroom — they don’t exist. That’s why all students who require one attend Van Pelt Elementary, which has one such restroom for each gender.

At Virginia Middle School, a person entering the school through the main entrance is immediately faced with up and down stairways — forcing anyone in a wheelchair to go around the building to another entrance.

None of Bristol, Virginia’s six public school buildings even remotely comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. They are grandfathered in until significant construction occurs within their walls. So work has long been delayed because it would trigger federal requirements to come into compliance and the city simply cannot afford to pay that bill.

But plans to start improving four city elementary schools this summer will change all that.

A new 104-page report from the Virginia Department of Education points out those shortcomings and many, many more while estimating the cost to address them all could range between $33 million and $64 million — substantially higher than previous estimates ranging between $11 million and $40 million for the elementary schools.

Currently, only Van Pelt Elementary, Virginia Middle and Virginia High School have any handicapped-accessible facilities, but none of those buildings are close to being fully compliant with the federal standard. The report estimates it will require more than $33 million in improvements to bring those three schools into full ADA compliance and address other structural or facility concerns.

The state report was the result of four state officials touring all six city school buildings in late March, at the request of local school officials.

It recommends closing Highland View and Washington-Lee elementary schools due to the substantial costs to renovate them into ADA compliance and make other changes. During their review, state officials uncovered a nearly identical 1997 state recommendation to close those same schools.

It showed the need for “major renovations at three of the four elementary schools or replace the buildings,” according to the state report’s executive summary.

“As the team began to develop the school facility options contained in this report, overriding considerations included lack of meeting the American with Disabilities Act, the physical condition of the facilities, current traffic issues with buses and cars sharing the same spaces and safety on smaller sites and how to more efficiently utilize the existing school sites, or whether to abandon those in favor of other options,” according to the report.

This is the third in a dizzying array of studies during the past year estimating elementary school repair and improvement costs ranging between $11 million to more than $40 million. Those numbers have been publicly challenged by Mayor Kevin Mumpower as over-inflated but he also cited the need to address immediate needs.

“The Department of Education uses real numbers. Any school built in the commonwealth or any renovation to a school, those financials have to be reported to the Department of Education,” Superintendent Keith Perrigan said. “So they’re able to provide estimates of new builds and renovations using actual numbers from real projects that have happened all over the commonwealth. We have three experts who work in the field who provide numbers. Because the mayor doesn’t agree with them doesn’t make them wrong.”

A breakthrough deal

The report was released last Monday, the same day a coalition of City Council and School Board members reached a tentative deal to allocate $200,000 for some projects to address basic accessibility and safety needs at four city elementary schools.

“This is a sign of what can happen when City Council and School Board get together and we put our differences aside, make sure we have the city’s best interest at heart so you’ll see some improvements immediately in our current schools starting really soon,” Councilman Anthony Farnum said.

While it signals a baby step toward bridging what has become an ever-widening chasm between the city’s two elected bodies, it is literally a drop in the bucket.

The $200,000, which must still be approved by the council, is expected to fund construction of security vestibules inside the entrances of all four elementary schools and create one male and one female handicapped-accessible restroom at each building. Plans are to establish a locked vestibule area so that anyone who visits a school building is buzzed into that area first but not allowed to proceed until their identity and purpose are verified by a receptionist or other school official.

One appropriation is to come from the current fiscal year’s operating budget and the other from the 2019-20 spending plan, City Manager Randy Eads said.

“A $100,000 appropriation will come to the council on May 28. We haven’t worked out the details on the other $100,000, but I anticipate it will be sometime in July,” Eads said. “It will be based on School Board needs as to when they need that [second allocation].”

Washington-Lee Elementary School is built on four levels with few ramps, making access difficult for mobility impaired students, faculty and visitors. Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier

Bristol’s elementary conundrum

All of this angst arose amid a 2018 School Board effort to address its elementary school conundrum.

The city currently has about 1,100 elementary students between pre-kindergarten and fifth grade. More than 470 attend Van Pelt, the city’s newest school built in 1974, while the remaining 630 attend Highland View, Stonewall Jackson and Washington-Lee, which range from 82 to 51 years old.

At the center of this long-running discussion is the School Board’s expressed desire to retain Van Pelt, close its three oldest, smallest, most challenged elementary schools and construct a building to accommodate those students. The board made that decision in 2011, but without the ability to generate its own funds and the city’s mounting debt from The Falls commercial center and the solid waste landfill, it remained on hold.

In 2017, as new city leadership began addressing the financial challenges, the School Board directed Perrigan to revive its “two school model” and try to identify a way to make it a reality.

The result was a 2018 proposal to build that school on city-owned property adjacent to the existing Van Pelt Elementary, a site chosen primarily because the land would be free — a key consideration for the financially challenged city.

The proposed $18.5 million, 86,500-square-foot building was designed by J.A. Street after the board reached an agreement under the Virginia Public Private Education and Facilities Act of 2002. It would allow the private contractor to build and own the building while the city made payments for 30 years until it, ultimately, owned the facility.

However, a split City Council rejected the proposal in a 3-2 vote last November with Mayor Mumpower, Vice Mayor Kevin Wingard and newly appointed Councilman Anthony Farnum voting against the plan — primarily because of the long-term $37.6 million price tag and community concerns about placing all elementary students at the far eastern portion of the city. Council members Bill Hartley and Neal Osborne voted for the project.

School officials didn’t take that defeat well and have continually offered up sharp criticism, arguing it would eliminate the three worst buildings from the equation and the payments could have been made through operational savings of closing three older buildings and reduced staffing.

Last Monday, the board agreed to leave the PPEA agreement with Street open, in case any progress might occur.

What prior studies show

While the state study’s cost estimates are breathtaking, it is far from the first time such large numbers have been discussed.

A September 2018 study by Mosely Architects of Richmond provided a wide range of options from minimal fixes to complete overhauls that upgraded all four elementary buildings to 21st century standards. Those estimates ranged from $13.96 million to slightly more than $42 million.

Options included closing Highland View, consolidating those students with Van Pelt by adding a wing and renovating the other three elementary buildings at a total cost of $39 million. Another option was to close Highland View, renovate the other three elementary buildings, move fifth grade to Virginia Middle School and eighth grade to Virginia High by adding a wing, at a total cost of $41 million. Yet another option was to do all of option two but repurpose existing space at the high school, which brought the total cost to $34.7 million.

All were dismissed as unaffordable.

A flight of stairs but no access ramp requires mobility impaired people to use the exterior doors to gain access to some levels of Bristol Virginia's Washington-Lee Elementary School. Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier

After its November vote, the council directed school leaders to come back with a more reasonable set of estimates and a prioritized list.

The school division then commissioned Thompson & Litton Architects to evaluate its buildings and develop recommendations to make all four elementary schools “safe, accessible and functional.” That firm’s March 2019 report provided detailed estimates of a range of items, including asbestos abatement, installing security vestibules, making doors, entrances and restrooms ADA compliant, adding elevators at Washington-Lee and Highland View, as well as making repairs to sidewalks, floors and addressing other structural issues.

The total cost was $12.97 million with a recommendation to add 25 percent to cover cost over-runs, architect and permit fees and other soft costs, bringing the total estimate to more than $16.2 million.

Among $2.2 million in proposed changes at Highland View are asbestos abatement, installing an elevator, upgrading the kitchen, improving the gym, addressing structural issues where water is seeping into walls, replacing ceiling tile, upgrading electrical service, adding air scrubbers, upgrading HVAC and making interior safety improvements.

Included in the $1.58 million for proposed changes at Stonewall Jackson are asbestos abatement, a hallway to connect kindergarten to the cafeteria, a series of repairs to walls and stairs, upgrading restrooms to ADA compliance, security improvements, a new intercom, ceiling tile, lighting and upgrading the fire alarm system.

Included in $4.2 million in proposed changes at Washington-Lee are replacing asbestos floor tile, installing an elevator, addressing drainage issues, upgrading restrooms to ADA compliance, constructing a classroom addition to replace rooms displaced by the elevator and security improvements.

Included in proposed upgrades for Van Pelt are $2.9 million to build partition walls throughout the building, relocate the office, make restroom’s ADA compliant and add a fire alarm system. Adding four classrooms at Van Pelt to accommodate students from another school would add $2 million to the final total.

State report suggests more options

The state Department of Education’s 104-page report addresses shortcomings of all six buildings. It includes an overview of the challenges found at each, proposed solutions, including cost estimates based on statewide averages for similar school construction projects, reviews of transportation and operating costs and a detailed review of the buildings, including photographs of specific findings at each.

In summary, the report urges closing Highland View and Washington-Lee as soon as possible and proposes four options regarding renovations at the other buildings and the need to build an elementary school.

In every scenario, Virginia High renovations are forecast to cost $15.33 million, Virginia Middle renovations are pegged at $8.2 million and Van Pelt renovations estimated at $9.84 million, which includes building a new cafeteria since the current cafeteria is in a former classroom space and judged to be too small for the number of students.

“We are partially handicap accessible but not fully. Some of our doors have the right handles, some do not. Some of our doorways are the right width, some are not,” Perrigan said. “Our bathrooms might have a bar in the right place but the center hole for the toilet is off by 3 inches. The center of a normal toilet should be 12 inches from the wall but an accessible toilet should be 15 inches. Just putting up a bar doesn’t make it handicap accessible. There are a lot of criteria that go into restrooms.”

Option one is to renovate Van Pelt and change grade structure to K-2, build a new elementary school with grades 3-5 on the adjacent site, abandon the other three elementary schools, and renovate Virginia Middle and Virginia High at a total cost of $54.6 million.

Option two includes renovating Van Pelt, renovating Stonewall Jackson and building an addition to increase student capacity, abandoning the other two elementary schools, renovating Virginia Middle and Virginia High at a total cost of $48.05 million.

The estimated cost to renovate Stonewall Jackson is $14.66 million.

Option three includes renovating Van Pelt, building a new Stonewall Jackson on the adjacent baseball field then demolishing the existing Stonewall Jackson once the new facility is complete, abandoning the other two elementary schools, and renovating Virginia Middle and Virginia High at a total cost of $56 million.

Option four includes renovating Van Pelt and Stonewall Jackson, building an elementary school with a 425-student capacity, abandoning the other two elementary schools, and renovating the middle and high schools at a total cost of $64.22 million.

Cost of non-compliance

Local officials don’t yet know the federal timeline for bringing buildings into ADA compliance after construction occurs inside the buildings, or what, if any, penalties they could ultimately face if those deadlines aren’t met.

“I don’t know what that clock is but I know it starts once we start making changes inside our buildings,” Board Chairman Randy Alvis said.

Eads, who also serves as city attorney, said he plans to research those questions.

As an example of what can happen, court documents accessed from the ADA.gov website show the Justice Department took action against the village of Byesville, Ohio, for non-compliance. In 2016, it entered into a settlement agreement to address a wide range of issues at town buildings, sidewalks and public parks because barriers kept handicapped individuals from “participating in its programs and services.”

That agreement identified more than 120 specific instances, including toilets, parking lots and sidewalks, curbing building access, door knobs, doorways, signs and counters that had to be modified or replaced. Court documents don’t reflect a financial penalty but included a three-year timeline with constant federal oversight.

Where do we go from here?

The superintendent said the school system is willing to rehabilitate its older elementary schools but doesn’t view that as the best approach.

“If they give $1 million to $2 million a year for the next seven years we will absolutely spend it to the best of our ability, but I don’t think that’s a good use of taxpayer dollars,” Perrigan said. “At some point, their [buildings] end of life is going to come and the state has been recommending since 1997 that Highland View and Washington-Lee’s end of life has come — those are experts not just School Board members.”

The three council members who agreed to the $200,000 allocation have jointly pledged to work with the School Board to determine the best path forward and the mayor has repeatedly said the city should set aside funds every year toward school capital needs.

“I think the name of the game is dialogue,” Osborne said. “That’s how we got this far. It’s [$200,000] a small step, but the end game is going to be we’re going to have to find a way to do a new school. We can’t sustain paying $200,000 a year forever to fix these things because that’s just not feasible. I think we have to find a way to do a new school.”

Osborne said that solution should come sooner rather than later.

“We can’t put this off another year or two. I’d like to talk about this over the next six months and find something,” Osborne said.

Perrigan continues to champion the plan to build an elementary school and close the three older buildings.

“From that standpoint, it just continues to make sense to me that our budget-neutral option to deal with some of the improvements at other schools is going to be the most efficient model,” Perrigan said.

The city manager intends to propose one possible solution to the elementary issue at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting

“I know Dr. Perrigan is continuing to look at a couple of different options. We hope to have all of this resolved by November,” Eads said. “We’ve already done the [PPEA] process for the one new school at Van Pelt, and there are discussions on how we handle Highland View and Washington-Lee. There are discussions about whether we renovate all the schools that have been presented. It’s just a matter of what will be the most financially responsible solution for the city.”

School Board Chairman Alvis said the board ultimately relies on the city.

“We’re not the funding agency. The monies we ask for and that are appropriated to us from the city is what we operate on,” Alvis said. “It depends on the city’s finances for those projects. It’s great we’re going to get started with this $200,000, but we’re going to have to have some called meetings and have discussions about where do we go from here. It’s an excellent first step but there is so much that needs to be done.”

Alvis said the board’s task of addressing ADA issues would be simpler if there was an annual allocation.

“The hard part for us is figuring where we go next, not knowing what monies we have,” Alvis said. “For example, if they [council] said you have X amount of dollars for ADA then that gives us some direction of what to look at to do next. The money drives everything.”

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