New John Kerr could open by fall 2015, and possibly sooner
Posted: February 6, 2013
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — Construction of a new John Kerr Elementary School could begin sooner than previously expected, and the first public hearing on its potential location has been scheduled for next month.
At a joint meeting of members of City Council and the School Board Tuesday, board members learned for the first time that the city expects to be able to issue bonds for the project as soon as this spring. Previous projections had placed Winchester’s ability to borrow money for the project at July 1, 2015, at the earliest.
The expected change would mean the new school likely will open sooner than previously anticipated.
“It’s a bit of a surprise. Obviously if it can happen, that’s extremely good news for us,” School Board Chairman John Bishop said after the meeting. “We don’t want to put in any more learning cottages [at schools] than we have to because that’s not meant to be a long-term solution.”
Bishop said the potential change could result in the new building opening by the fall of 2015, and possibly sooner.
Members of the panels decided to meet again on March 5 to take public comment on the school’s location. The site for that meeting is to be determined.
The School Board also will hold a public hearing about the project at its April 8 meeting.
“The key to us providing a John Kerr decision,” Bishop said during the meeting, “is public input.”
Multiple factors have created a situation where the city thinks it will be able to issue the bonds sooner than expected without violating any of its debt guidelines.
The combination of last year’s 9-cent increase in the real estate tax, the savings realized by refinancing previously issued bonds and higher-than-anticipated real estate values from the 2012 reassessment appears to have created room for the city to borrow a year earlier than expected, City Manager Dale Iman said. City officials will meet with financial advisers today to confirm the assumptions.
Iman said the big difference in the real estate reassessments was in commercial values. While residential values rose slightly, the commercial valuation increased 1 percent instead of falling 3 percent as projected.
The city wants to issue the bonds as soon as possible to take advantage of the historically low interest rates. Iman said Winchester can borrow money now at interest rates of less than 3 percent.
Schools officials have contracted the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service to project future enrollment and determine why city schools continued to grow through the housing slump.
Bishop said the school population has grown by nearly 400 students since 2009. The board is working to develop a long-range facility needs plan.
“We need to know where enrollment is going before we develop that plan,” said Kevin McKew, the division’s executive director.
School Board member Erica Truban said overcrowding is a problem at all elementary schools, so decisions about John Kerr need to help resolve that problem.
“We need to relieve that stress on our other schools in the process,” she said.
The upcoming budget was also discussed at the meeting. School and city officials explained to each other the challenges they’re facing for fiscal year 2014.
Councilors Ben Weber and Evan Clark suggested that the schools should charge students on a sliding scale based on ability to pay for some of the resources or services it provides for free.
“I’m having trouble justifying to my constituents why there’s not a sliding scale for [Advance Placement] tests and athletics,” Clark said. He later added Career and Technical Education (CTE) certification tests to that list.
Schools Superintendent Ricky Leonard said the division likes to pay for the tests so they get high levels of participation to help evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Charging a fee likely would reduce participation.
City Council members also were updated on the status of the development of a CTE program for health sciences.
Bishop said six school divisions, Valley Health, Lord Fairfax Community College and Our Health are partnering in the development and implementation of the program. Valley Health is providing about $300,000 to the school divisions over the next three years as seed money for the program.
Valley Health and Lord Fairfax will offer a summer program this year, he said, and Introduction to Medical Science will be offered in city schools in the fall.
Leonard said Winchester is behind all the other jurisdictions in its health sciences offerings, so it will be trying to catch up. Interest in the classes is expected to exceed capacity.
Attending the meeting at Rouss City Hall were City Council President John Willingham, Mayor Elizabeth Minor, Councilor Evan Clark, School Board Chairman John Bishop, Vice-Chairman Mel Thomas and board members Richard Bell, Allyson Pate and Erica Truban.
— Contact Vic Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org