A major renovation of Salem High School will have to be slowed down and split into phases to avoid overwhelming the city’s budget, officials said Friday.

Concept plans for overhauling the circa-1977 high school were rolled out just before the new school year and carried an eye-popping $53 million cost estimate — positioning it to be the single priciest project Salem ever entertained.

For context, Salem’s current outstanding debt for all past school projects totals about $22 million. Its debt for general government projects stands at about $21 million and for utility projects about $40 million.

Absent a record-setting tax increase, for which there have been no calls, city hall leaders said they can’t absorb such a hefty, new bill in one go.

“We’ve got to figure out another way,” City Manager Kevin Boggess said Friday during a joint city council-school board meeting.

City officials hastened to assure school representatives that they supported the push to restore and modernize the school that is home to about 1,200 students.

But they proposed breaking it into more digestible phases spread out over years. The question of just how many years remains undecided.

Officials pledged to work during the upcoming budget season to devise a timetable that the schools could plan around.

“You’ve got to trust us on this,” Vice Mayor Bill Jones said during the joint session. “We’ve got to stick together and follow a plan. I know it won’t be easy, and probably what little hair I have left will be gone.”

School leaders, who had spent most of the meeting building their case for the renovation, appeared disappointed but resigned to the financial limitations.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction, and they’re going to work really hard to come up with opportunities and options for us,” said David Preston, chairman of the school board.

“We’re looking at this as a partnership so we’re ready and willing, when the money is available, to do what is needed to get these schools modernized.”

The $53 million figure was part of a set of projections based on early concept plans. School officials expect the estimates will be refined and perhaps lowered as more detailed planning takes place.

Friday’s joint session kicked off with tours of Salem High and of nearby Glenvar High in Roanoke County, which just finished a major renovation last year.

Officials also met with a panel of Salem High teachers and students.

School representatives gently urged the city to ensure the high school renovation remains a priority. Inflation will drive up costs over time, some noted, and the division already has done a number of piecemeal refurbishments over the years.

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