Falmouth hopefuls differ on Stafford High School plan
A construction project that’s underway remains a campaign issue for some candidates seeking the Falmouth District seats on the Stafford Board of Supervisors and School Board.
While classes continue inside the existing Stafford High School, ground work for the nearby replacement high school has begun. Utilities lines are being dug, and footers are being set. It’s about 6 percent along now, but the 280,000-square-foot school should be ready by the fall of 2015.
It took years for the county’s elected officials get the votes to move forward on the plan for the $66.6 million project. The current high school will be demolished in the summer of 2015 to make room for parking lots and practice fields for the new school.
But two candidates running for the open Falmouth District seats want to see the building, or part of it at least, stay standing.
Supervisor candidate Robert Belman and School Board candidate Mark Kitta say they’re in favor of construction on the new building proceeding as planned, but oppose demolishing the old school that they say is a $36 million asset.
“I am against tearing down that building,” said Belman, a former School Board member running as an independent to be the Falmouth supervisor. “It does not make economic sense to tear down a brick-and-mortar building that can be repurposed for another need.”
Kitta and Belman say that need could be a career and technical education center, a long-talked-about idea in Stafford.
“The school system is in frantic need of space,” said Kitta, referencing the School Board’s ongoing discussions about population growth and school capacity.
Meg Bohmke, the Republican candidate for Falmouth supervisor and a current School Board member, said the new school plan has been approved and “we are not going backwards.”
“I’m not making this election about the high school,” said Bohmke, adding that the new Stafford High will address educational and safety needs. “I’m moving forward. That is already all done.”
The Democratic candidate for the Falmouth seat, Valerie Setzer, said she doesn’t know all the nuts and bolts of the Stafford High project and had assumed the plans were essentially set in stone.
She wants the county to plan ahead for accommodating student populations, and consider selling the Clift Farm Road property—where a new Stafford High was at one time planned—and instead purchase more buildable acreage.
But she’s not completely against saving the current school, if the question were to come back to the two boards.
“If there is still room for a a parking lot elsewhere that will accommodate all the teachers, students, and employees, then maybe that could work,” she said.
Scott Hirons, who is also seeking the Falmouth School Board seat and is currently a Planning Commission member, said it’s not fiscally responsible to renovate the the old building.
“It shouldn’t be a campaign issue because the plan has been approved,” Hirons said. “Changing the plan will delay the opening of the new school.”
School Board and Board of Supervisors candidates occasionally pair up while campaigning though there are no official slates on the ballot. School Board candidates must run as independents though they may be endorsed by the two parties.
Belman said that Falmouth residents he’s met while door-knocking are shocked to learn about the planned demolition of the school.
He and Kitta say there is room elsewhere on the school property off Enon Road for a parking lot. Changing plans may not be easy at first, but it could be cheaper in the long run, they said—and require adjusting the county’s long-term building plans.
The old school could stand in front of the new school in theory, said Scott Horan, the school division’s assistant superintendent for facilities, but it would be “disastrous.”
“Practically speaking, it wouldn’t be a good idea because now we just built this beautiful new school and we have master planned this entire site … We would have done things differently from the get-go if we had planned to keep this building,” Horan said.
A traffic circle in front of the new school should help ease backups in the mornings and afternoons, Horan said, but there’d be no space for that or parking should the current building remain in place.
SCHOOL HAS BEEN DIVISIVE
Talk about the Stafford High campus’ future is nothing new.
Aquia District Supervisor Paul Milde has repeatedly criticized demolishing a building valued at $36 million, saying it’s not fiscally conservative to replace it with one that will cost $66 million.
Last November, Milde unsuccessfully proposed revising plans for the project, or putting the project to public referendum. But a 4–3 vote by the supervisors reaffirmed a decision made by the School Board a year earlier.
Supervisors Bob Thomas, Susan Stimpson, Gary Snellings and Ty Schieber said they wanted the matter put to rest.
Meanwhile, Milde, Jack Cavalier and Cord Sterling worried that the project wasn’t fully thought out and set a bad precedent.
Milde has voted against all items related to Stafford High School since then, including the school system’s borrowing money.
Concerns from families about losing the automotive program were resolved with a HESS Construction + Engineering Services proposal that came in under bid and allowed for an automotive lab at Stafford. The Richmond-based company also built Colonial Forge and Mountain View high schools.
The school system’s staff recently proposed a revised capital improvements plan to the School Board. That 10-year plan calls for a sixth high school to open in 2028, with work starting at the site off Clift Farm Road in 2024.
Additions would be needed sooner at three high schools, according to the plan.
Funding for a career and technical education center was removed from the latest draft.
The School Board also is expected to hold an upcoming work session on redistricting, or redrawing the school boundaries to address some of the overcrowding.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975