BRISTOL, Va. — A divided Bristol Virginia School Board again voted to recommend building a new elementary school adjacent to Van Pelt Elementary, less than a year after the City Council rejected that plan.
The board voted 4-1 to recommend the Van Pelt site to the City Council, with board member Randy White casting the dissenting vote. A compromise proposal to build next to the present Washington-Lee Elementary ranked second.
Before the vote, board Chairman Steve Fletcher, Vice Chairman Ronald Cameron and member Randy Alvis expressed strong support for building adjacent to Van Pelt. In fact, Alvis’ original motion was to only include Van Pelt in the document forwarded to the city.
“Money is an issue,” Alvis said. “If we vote for a plan where we have to ask for more appropriation from City Council, I couldn’t go ask for more money for teacher raises or to fix the middle school or fix the high school. But if we do a plan, and we’re taking care of it without more appropriation, I have no problem asking for more money. I think it’s the best plan. We’ve kicked it around for a year and exhausted all possibilities.”
Over the past year, the board has researched and considered a half-dozen other potential sites and held multiple joint meetings with the council trying to reach a consensus. This summer, both sides seemed to agree building a new school near the center of the city was the best idea, but the board rejected that option Monday.
The Van Pelt option would include building a 630-student school next to the present Van Pelt building on land the city already owns. It would cost an estimated $18.4 million with an annual payment of $1.13 million — about $980,000 of which would be covered by savings generated by closing Highland View, Stonewall Jackson and Washington-Lee and consolidating those students onto the Van Pelt campus, with the current building hosting pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade and the new building housing second through fifth grades.
The new building would be funded through the Virginia Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act, in which a private entity pays for and constructs the building before leasing it to the school system. The city would own the building once the lease is complete.
The board also voted 4-1 Monday to extend its tentative PPEA agreement with J.A. Street Construction for three months to give the council time to act again.
Previous objections to the Van Pelt site included putting all the elementary students on one campus at the far eastern edge of the city, the lack of easy access for indigent families living in the center of the city, increased traffic through a residential neighborhood and the loss of neighborhood schools.
Despite a 2018 state attorney general’s opinion that the cost would not count toward the city’s fiscal debt, at least one council member has argued repeatedly that it remains a moral obligation of the city to pay that debt off.
“This is a good choice,” Fletcher said. “I guess some things have changed, and hopefully the City Council will have changed somewhat also.
“It’s never going to make everyone happy. I live in a neighborhood, if this goes through, I’m going to lose my neighborhood school — a school I went to when it was brand-new,” Fletcher said. “Times change; buildings have to be replaced. I think this is the best move for our city and this school system.”
School estimates forecast no additional cost to the city, but those figures don’t include a potential traffic signal on Bonham Road, adding a turning lane on Bonham Road and a road through Sunset Park to accommodate bus traffic to relieve stress on residential streets.
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Keith Perrigan presented the results of a recent online survey that showed the Van Pelt site received substantial support from the more than 300 teachers, division employees and parents who responded.
Overall, Van Pelt received 164 first-place votes, Washington-Lee using a three-school operating model got 115 votes while closing the three schools and building a larger school at Washington-Lee netted 74 first-place votes.
Among teachers and staff, Van Pelt received 35 first-place votes to Washington-Lee’s three- school proposal’s 32 and 27 for the Washington-Lee two school plan.
Van Pelt was also the top choice among parents, getting 50 first-place votes.
Board member Randy White said he wished the survey sample had been larger.
“This city, I think, is about fairness and equality and reaching out to everyone, making school available to them to walk to if they don’t have transportation,” White said. “I still cannot see going up to Van Pelt.”
Mayor Neal Osborne and Vice Mayor Bill Hartley attended the meeting and listened to the discussion. Afterward Osborne, who voted for the Van Pelt site last year, said it deserves reconsideration.
“I know it was voted down a year ago, but they [School Board] took a whole year looking at all different options and they come back, at the end of the day, this is the best option the School Board has had to recommend to us,” Osborne said. “Now it’s on us as City Council not to pick the location but to get the financing that works best for the city. As I said a year ago, the Van Pelt option works best for the city financially. Whether we have three votes or not is something that is to be determined.”