School Board’s choice for Kerr site scrutinized

Posted: November 23, 2013

The Winchester Star

This view, facing east, shows the Meadow Branch John Kerr Elementary School site at center. James Wood Middle School and Sacred Heart Church are at left on Amherst Street. The existing John Kerr is at right behind the water towers. Merrimans Lane travels across the bottom of the photo. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
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WINCHESTER — City school officials are standing by their choice of a Frederick County contractor’s project proposal for a new John Kerr Elementary School, despite a Berryville firm’s contention that its plan better fits the needs of the division.

In late October, the School Board voted 4-3 to accept Shockey P3 LLC’s plan to build the new facility near Kerr’s current location just west of Handley High School, instead of Caldwell & Santmyer Inc.’s proposal to build on land just south of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church.

“It ended up coming down to facility and design,” said School Board Chairman John Bishop. “It was very close for me. I felt a little more comfortable and impressed with Shockey. We have a long history with them. There’s a lot of built-up trust that they’ve earned.”

Shockey officials, citing confidential negotiations with Winchester Public Schools, declined to comment for this story or to provide information about their project.

The renovation and expansion of John Kerr at 536 Jefferson St. has been discussed since 1987, but no major capital project was previously attempted.

Now, the 40-year-old building is in need of a new roof, heating and ventilation system, doors, windows, an electrical system and a fire pump.

In May, city school officials accepted an unsolicited proposal for the construction of a new John Kerr from Shockey in accordance with the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA).

At the time, Shockey officials had no parameters from the School Board to guide them because a programming document with the project details was not available.

In July and August, the board began accepting competing PPEA proposals under the guidelines set by a newly created bridging document that established the board’s minimum expectations for the project.

Under those guidelines, the division recommended a 92,156-square-foot school with a capacity of 646 students and including at least 112 parking spots and four play areas, to be built at a cost not to exceed the City Council’s $20 million ceiling.

Caldwell & Santmyer was the only firm to send a competing proposal.

PPEA is a design-build process that allows the board to contract with one entity for design and construction services.

It allows for parts of the design phase to take place at the same time as construction and for a potentially earlier build.

It also allows the private developer to buy the land as part of its construction package, instead of the board making a separate land acquisition.

Since submitting the unsolicited proposal, Shockey has adjusted it to better comply with the requirements of the project — increasing the proposed school size to 90,000 square feet and the student capacity to 650.

It also raised its parking spaces to 112, but 20 are on the street. C&S’s site provides 123 parking spots.

The School Board chose Shockey’s site near the existing John Kerr in favor of Caldwell & Santmyer’s 9.3-acre site east of Merrimans Lane and adjacent to a proposed extension of Meadow Branch Avenue that would connect with Amherst Street.

C&S had proposed building on the site at a project cost of $19.9 million, including $1.47 million for land acquisition. The land has two lots: one owned by Ridgefield Orchard Site and the other by DBL Holdings LLC.

If the school were to be built at the Caldwell site, 24 developable acres would open up along the extended Meadow Branch Avenue, according to C&S President Tucker Conaboy.

Despite the 4-3 vote in favor of the Shockey site, Conaboy is not going down without a fight.

In a Nov. 3 memo to the City Council, Conaboy stated that his company’s proposal presented “a significant advantage in project scope” over Shockey’s.

“I don’t feel like our proposal was ever understood,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “I think we better met the project [specifications], and our development is healthier for the city than up on Nester Drive and Jefferson.”

Conaboy said C&S could have proposed a plan to build on the current site, but chose not to for a number of reasons, including the parcel’s sloping terrain and perceived future traffic problems.

During the decision process, he was told by the School Board to focus on his site and not to criticize Shockey’s site.

According to Conaboy, the topography at the Jefferson Street site requires a three-story design that is inappropriate for an elementary school.

Also, he said that due to the slope of the land, if a person were to stand near the existing school, he would see the future school’s roof because it would sit 51 feet lower.

“I don’t think it’s what the neighborhood envisions,” he said.

In a letter to The Winchester Star, however, Shockey officials defended the site and the proposed school.

“We believe that compact, multi-story schools offer spatial efficiency, minimize roofing costs, preserve open space on the site and even benefit cardiovascular fitness,” the letter stated. “Further, the school entrance is in the MIDDLE of our three stories, only ONE floor away from top or bottom floors.”

According to Conaboy’s memo, if the school were built off Meadow Branch Avenue, it could serve the Whittier Acres/Fox Drive students, who are now sent to school by bus across the city. These neighborhoods were “not engaged” in the site discussion, according to the memo.

Although Shockey officials say the land at the Jefferson Street site covers 15 acres, the number of “usable” acres is nine, according to city schools Executive Director Kevin McKew — slightly less than the Meadow Branch site.

The Virginia Department of Education recommends that the site for an elementary school should be on a minimum of four acres.

Conaboy said traffic would be a “nightmare” at the current site, with two schools so close together, even with the plan for extending Nester Drive to Jefferson Street.

McKew, however, dismissed the idea. He said the majority of buses would enter via the Nester Drive extension and that the majority of cars would arrive via Jefferson Street.

A dropoff point would be designated for cars, with a separate loop for buses. Nine buses serve the school now, but the future lot would be able to stack 12.

“It will really be an improved situation than what we currently have,” he said. “Is it going to be a busy place in the a.m. and p.m.? Sure. But is it going to be a nightmare? No.”

Extending Nester Drive, however, would also cost the city more than extending Meadow Branch — $949,100 compared to $680,000.

City Council President John Willingham said he knows “some talks” have taken place with Lauri and Scott Bridgeforth — who own the land on which the Nester Drive extension would be built — about acquiring the property.

He said more in-depth discussions have taken place between the Bridgeforths and Shockey because adding the road to the PPEA has been discussed.

When asked what happens if the Bridgeforths don’t want to sell the land, Willingham said the city government “is not far enough along” in the process to have that discussion.

Lauri Bridgeforth did not return calls for comment about the matter.

McKew said the cost of the right-of-way acquisition for Nester Drive is considered proprietary because of the continuing discussions between the parties.

When the nine-member School Board selected Shockey to build a new John Kerr on its current site on Oct. 28, two members did not vote.

Vince Di Benedetto was on vacation, and Allyson Pate recused herself “because of a personal interest in real property that could be a financial benefit to me or members of my immediate family.”

Conaboy said he was surprised that the board did not delay the vote due to the absence of Di Benedetto, who did not return calls for comment for this story.

Di Benedetto had voted in 2012 to construct the new John Kerr on a lot similar to that in the C&S proposal, near Amherst Street, after which the City Council told board members to revisit the issue.

Chairman Bishop said he had received an email from a board member about delaying the vote, but decided against it because the panel had notified the public about the two potential upcoming dates for the decision.

“I didn’t think I should use my authority in that way, seeing the expectations of the community at large,” said Bishop, who added that board members could have made a motion to table the vote at any time if they thought it necessary.

In the end, McKew said, both projects were “viable.”

“[School Board members] all studied it carefully, all in good faith,” he said.

The city government authorized a fiscal analysis study by S. Patz and Associates Inc. of Potomac Falls to examine the future tax base implications of placing a new John Kerr on the two sites.

According to the study, development of the current John Kerr site for any use other than a school would be “difficult” because the Handley Board of Trustees has stated that its property must be used for educational purposes, and selling the property for development does not meet that requirement.

If development of single-family homes were to occur, the net tax revenue for the city would be negative, according to the study.

Were the school to be built at the Meadow Branch site, however, it could take money away from the tax base.

The study states that the three best uses for the Meadow Branch site in terms of tax revenue are medical office space, assisted-living facilities and senior-related housing — with the area benefiting from its proximity to Winchester Medical Center. A mix of these uses on the site would generate more than $200,000 annually in tax revenue, the study states.

However, Councilor Jeffrey Buettner noted at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that building at the Meadow Branch site could open other property to development sooner. That would add money to the tax base more quickly.

Neither proposal addresses the future use of the current John Kerr.

If the school is demolished, it will cost $1.25 million. If it is renovated with a new roof and heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, the cost will be $3.3 million.

About $1 million in furnishings will also be needed for the new school. McKew said these costs would be funded by the city through its Capital Improvements Plan.

The School Board is expected to vote Monday on whether to approve a comprehensive agreement with Shockey. The document will then go to the City Council for review and potential action on Tuesday. If approved, the design work would start in January and construction in June.

The school is expected to be open by July 2015, but any deviation in scheduling, even a few days, could delay the project to 2016.

“We need to stay on schedule to make 2015,” McKew said.

— Contact Rebecca Layne at rlayne@winchesterstar.com