School kids

You have probably heard that the City and the School Board have been engaged in discussions about building a new middle school in Idlewild, and repurposing Walker-Grant Middle School as a third elementary school using the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund (part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP)).

As you read this, please keep in mind that things are changing rapidly. City and School Staff and leadership are meeting weekly to move things forward as quickly as possible. I hope to have much more information in near-future newsletters.  

By way of background, we have known for years that the lower grades of our City schools are over-capacity at a crisis level and the upper grades are close behind. This situation only gets worse every year. I’ve toured the schools, and spoken to parents, school staff, School Board members, and City leaders about this issue many times over the past few years. I completely agree that the current capacity of our lower grades is truly untenable for our school children and that such conditions are overly burdensome for everyone involved. There is no question that we must prioritize the education environment for our children, now. It’s time.

A public joint meeting was scheduled for January 13th to discuss an interim agreement with a contractor for constructing the new middle school, but it was postponed due to a late-breaking development from Mary Washington Healthcare (MWHC).

Before the joint meeting, MHWC expressed interest in swapping 2300 Fall Hill Avenue for all or part of the Idlewild tract that is the proposed site for the new middle school. 2300 Fall Hill Avenue is a 280,000 sq. ft. building that houses MWHC’s back offices, located across the street from James Monroe High School. For obvious reasons, this offer complicates the new middle school process.

2300 Fall Hill Avenue has long been the subject of discussion as a possible site for adaptive reuse into an educational facility, to relieve some of the overcrowding in our public schools, and as a site for a greatly expanded Career & Technical Education (CTE) workforce development program “Center of Excellence”. These discussions were derailed, however, when COVID hit, and MWHC took 2300 Fall Hill Avenue off the market.

What has not occurred at this point is a comprehensive Architectural, Engineering and Economic feasibility study of 2300 Fall Hill Avenue for educational purposes, because the building was taken off the market before the study was procured. Recently, however, the Economic Development Authority voted to pay the costs of such a study, up to $50,000. The process to initiate the feasibility study has begun and I believe the study can be accomplished in the next few weeks.

Among the many factors to consider in this extremely important discussion, are:

  • MWHC’s back-office at 2300 Fall Hill Avenue employs over 600 people, with a financial transaction level of around $65M annually, and millions in indirect revenue to the City.
  • While 2300 Fall Hill is certainly large enough, as currently configured, it’s unlikely that it could accommodate a new school and all the core-capacity requirements like athletic fields, specials classes, hallway requirements, etc. Depending upon what the feasibility study reveals, the building would almost certainly have to undergo major renovations, which could cost as much as building a new school.
  • The window of time for applying for ESSER funds for the renovation of Walker-Grant Middle School will be closing.
  • As a City Council member, I believe we need to prioritize keeping well-paying jobs from leaving the City, maintain and grow revenue into the City, as well as ensure the safe and effective education of our children.

As most of you know, for years I have been a strong proponent of creating a dynamic and robust workforce development program in conjunction with our City Schools, Germanna Community College, UMW, and local employers. I believe such a program would help address our low current low graduation rate, the challenges of operating a Title I school district, and the low average household income in Fredericksburg (more than half of the households in the City are “ALICE” - employed but struggling to make ends meet). Everything we do impacts everyone – including those people for whom even a small increase in housing costs can have a tremendous impact. I would argue that, for some kids in our schools, their futures are also at risk. Of course, a good elementary education is critical to any child’s future.

Add to all of this is the fact that the Virginia General Assembly is taking up new legislation that could impact – for better or worse – our ability to fund new construction of schools. It all depends on how the votes go over the next couple of months.

While not all issues facing our schools can be solved by building a new school, research shows that crowded schools have a severe detrimental impact on student achievement and can exacerbate discipline issues. One thing that is clear in reading research about school capacity is that children have better academic and social outcomes in elementary schools that have an enrollment of approximately 500 students or fewer. Our two elementary schools have enrollments of over 800 and 900 – nearly twice the state average. Having said that, there are legitimate educational concerns that cannot be addressed with a new school alone, and I don’t think we should lose sight of that. I really want to get to the bottom to why we are now backed into this corner and figure out what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

This issue is extremely complicated. I am not one to reach iron-clad conclusions until I have enough facts, many of which have yet to come in. I still believe, as I have said many times, that the best approach to solving problems in the City is one that incorporates a Venn Diagram analysis. That involves identifying the issues, and then asking this question: does the solution positively impact more than one important issue at a time? Let’s not play whack-a-mole here, we’ve been down that road before and we know where it leads.

I recognize that the community feels frustrated in having this extremely important discussion while our schools are in a state of crisis. It is critically important, however, that we do our very best to look at the issues not in a vacuum, but as interrelated, and very carefully craft workable solutions for positive outcomes in the realms of improvements in education, quality of life, and the local economy. These decisions will impact our children, our households, our teachers, and staff, indeed our whole economy, and the impacts will be felt for generations to come.