RADFORD — The city council agreed to take the next step this week in funding the capital projects the school system has been trying to get started for nearly a decade.
A joint meeting between council and the school board Tuesday night again discussed how to proceed with the financing of more than $30 million in capital projects that school Superintendent Robert Graham said have been discussed since the mid-2000s.
The top priority among the projects is a $15.7 million renovation of McHarg Elementary School that remains largely the same as when it was built in the 1950s. Renovations to the high school and Dalton — such as a renovated library and some classrooms at Dalton — are underway and are expected to be ready, but there is much more work to be done to the athletic facilities and classrooms at the high school.
Including the McHarg renovations, the total capital improvement list comes out to approximately $34 million. Graham said that from fall 2018 until now, the McHarg renovation has jumped in price by nearly $4 million.
“It’s hard to believe, but the costs just keep rising at a pretty high rate,” he said.
Graham said when the project list first came out in 2009, it was at least $10 million less than the current number.
However, he said he’s happy with the progress made at the latest joint meeting. The council agreed that it is time to put out a bid on the design phase of McHarg to get an exact idea of what the cost might be instead of the current conceptual design that the school system is using.
Graham told council members that he and the school board have been waiting on the next step for a while, and he is ready to submit the proposal the day after council is scheduled to vote to approve it at its July 8 meeting.
Mayor David Horton reiterated that he and the council consider the city’s schools a top priority — but they want to do the due diligence as several members are serving their first terms.
“We love the schools and know they need a lot of work. We just want to make sure we aren’t putting all of our eggs in one basket and then unable to fund other school projects and things the city needs to get done,” he said Wednesday.
Councilwomen Naomi Huntington and Jessie Foster, who previously served on the school board, echoed Horton’s point. They were the first to mention that they are ready to begin the design phase to flesh out just how much everything at McHarg will cost.
“I think we are ready to move forward. There has been a lot of talk about what needs to happen and we need to get the ball rolling,” Huntington said.
Jack Murphy of Thompson & Litton, a design and architecture firm based in Radford, has done much of the work up until this point in guiding the school system with its capital needs. He estimated that the design process for McHarg will cost approximately $900,000, but he said that often the bidding process can bring that number down.
The city council dedicated 4 cents of its recent 6-cent raise in real estate taxes to capital projects. That amounts to around $320,000 per year.
The school board and city council said they would rather go the traditional bond route when it comes to funding but also mentioned the Public Private Education Act, which allows a private company to buy the building and pay for the costs of the project while leasing the building back to the school system to pay off the debt before the city would ultimately buy it back for $1. The terms of those agreements often are similar to that of a regular bond in duration and interest rates.
Graham said for the first time in a while he is happy with the progress being made with the council.
“This is the first time in nine years that we are taking the design phase to bid so I think that is great progress and it’s wonderful having a board that supports us,” he said.
After the bidding process is over, Graham and Horton said that it will probably be nine months to a year before any construction begins at McHarg.