CHRISTIANSBURG — The Montgomery County School Board is removing a planned renovation of Christiansburg High School to be part of a proposal that aims to speed up and lower the costs of government projects.
That decision comes as a group is criticizing the school division’s use of the Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act (PPEA).
The future expansion and renovation of the high school is among the more than $100 million worth of projects that the board approved earlier this year as part of plans to alleviate long-standing overcrowding in the Christiansburg strand of schools.
School board members this week stressed that they are not, at all, changing the overall plans for the high school. They said, however, that they would like to address the project separately due to its scope and the fact that the work isn’t expected to start for at least a few years.
“It’s not changing the time frame,” board Chairwoman Gunin Kiran said during a meeting last week. “As long as nothing slows on the rolling ball, I’m good.”
The $70 million renovation and expansion of the high school was initially included on the current list of projects that MCPS is considering doing under the guidelines of the state’s PPEA.
The PPEA can speed up and lessen the costs of government projects by allowing private firms to handle key aspects such as seeking financing and managing the construction and architectural work.
The other projects MCPS plans to complete under the PPEA is the $35 million expansions of Christiansburg Primary, Christiansburg Elementary and Belview Elementary schools.
School board members said this week that not including the high school in the PPEA proposal gives them more flexibility with that project.
While MCPS made use of the PPEA for the new Blacksburg High School, that project faced stricter time constraints, school board member Connie Froggatt said.
The new Blacksburg High School was built after the 2010 collapse of the old high school’s gym roof.
“We needed it done,” she said Tuesday night. “We don’t have that with Christiansburg High School. We have the time.”
School board members didn’t rule out the possibility of still using a PPEA for Christiansburg High. But taking the project out of the current PPEA proposal allows the school district to potentially find a more cost-effective and higher quality option, they said.
“When you have time to actually do the design right and get feedback from the school and community, you end up with a better product that fits your community better,” school board member Mark Cherbaka said.
MCPS, school board members said, could go through the traditional process of advertising for competitive bids on the Christiansburg High project.
The traditional bidding process involves the disclosure of details such as proposed project prices once the bidding window closes.
“At some point you can see how the economy is doing, you can see how the market is doing and you can make better informed decisions,” Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz told the board.
Taking the high school off the current PPEA plan also allows the project’s design work to be started earlier, Superintendent Mark Miear said. Up until this week, design work for the high school was expected to start this upcoming January.
MCPS received a total of three PPEA proposals for the Christiansburg school projects. The identity of just one of those bidders — the Branch Group in Roanoke — was disclosed.
MCPS administration is recommending Branch, which has been involved in the school district’s past projects.
MCPS this week, however, was asked to reconsider its PPEA plan by at least one critic of the method.
The fact that prices under PPEA proposals often aren’t immediately known raises concerns about whether taxpayer dollars are used wisely, said Matt Benka, a Richmond-based lobbyist who contacted Montgomery County and MCPS Tuesday on behalf of the Virginia Contractor Procurement Alliance.
The VCPA describes itself as an advocate for the responsible use of taxpayer dollars.
“There’s no such procurement if you’re not competing on specific points,” Benka said. “They could have picked one company based on the color of their tie, and that’s the truth.
“We believe the county, taxpayers, teachers and students would be much better served if the county used the competitive field bid method of procurement.”
Benka said the lack of early pricing details can lead to projects costing more than initially expected.
Benka’s recent communication with the county and MCPS involved a Freedom of Information Act request pertaining to the PPEA proposal on the Christiansburg projects.
The FOIA makes more than two dozen specific requests, including whether Kranz had previously worked for any of the three firms that submitted proposals to MCPS for the Christiansburg projects.
Kranz couldn’t be reached for further comment last week.
MCPS spokeswoman Brenda Drake said the school district will respond to Benka’s request the same way it responds to all open records request.