With the Manassas City Council set to begin budget talks next week, school board members are hoping that a new heavily Democratic council will eventually set aside funding for the long-discussed replacement for Jennie Dean Elementary School.
The oldest school in the system, the Dean building was constructed as a middle school in 1959, with additions coming in 1977 and 1990. As it has in previous years, the school board approved an item in the Capital Improvement Plan for $63 million to build a replacement starting in 2026.
But also similar to previous years, there’s an understanding that the city would need to set money aside for a new building before then to limit the amount of debt the project would require. Last year, the council withheld about $1 million from the schools budget as fears about shortfalls from the emerging COVID-19 pandemic grew.
Now, with the city so far projecting a surplus for the current fiscal year, the school board wants to return to the topic in upcoming funding discussions. In April, the school division will present its fiscal year 2022 budget to the council. Superintendent Kevin Newman’s proposed $129.7 million budget still needs approval from the school board next month, and the first order of business for the council will be to finalize its fiscal year allocation to the school system.
After that, though, the school board is hopeful that work on a plan for the replacement can begin in earnest.
“It totally depends on, now that we have a new city council and mayor, we need to work with them to see how best we can go forward. Obviously our budget totally depends on the city, state and the federal government,” School Board Chair Sanford Williams told InsideNoVa.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you how we’re going to go forward with it but we definitely need to work with them,” he added. “We’re going to be working with Mayor [Michelle] Davis-Younger and the council to find out the best way for the city and us to move forward. … The school’s a high priority for us.”
Andy Hawkins, chief financial officer of the school system, said if no plan is in place by 2026, the division will have to take a different route and begin renovations and other improvements to keep the school functioning. The division’s facilities plan projects that the needed improvements would cost more than 75% of what a new building would, making a new building – with an estimated cost of $63 million – the smart long-term move.
But previous planning for the replacement called for a new building to be constructed by 2023, and no money was allocated for it. The year 2026 would also coincide with when the city’s debt service for the $38 million Baldwin Elementary ends. That building opened in 2016. But the city will still be financing a new fire station and public safety building, limiting its capacity for new debt and necessitating some advanced funding for a Dean replacement.
The council will go on its annual retreat next week and begin discussions on its budget, of which school funding is the biggest expense.
Councilmember Mark Wolfe said the replacement remains a priority for the city, but that the uncertainty of the pandemic makes long-term planning more difficult. According to school board member Tim Demeria, the pandemic also made things more difficult in a practical way, preventing the two bodies from meeting face-to-face for formal or informal discussions.
“Yes, we’re trying to do all we can to help the schools and Dean is a part of that and is a significant priority of the council, I think we’ve made that clear,” Wolfe said.
“I’m sure the council will do what we can within the fiscal constraints,” he added. “There is just no way to hit the taxpayers with that debt service all at one time, so we’ve got to build up reserves to prepay that expense as reasonably as we can.. What format that will take, I don’t know.”
Since the last schools budget was discussed, Democrat Davis-Younger replaced Republican Hal Parrish as mayor and Democrats now hold a 5-1 majority on the council. Democrats on the council last year pushed for a higher tax rate than City Manager Pat Pate recommended, in part citing the need for a new school.
“I think the school board and the council will renew their discussions about how are we going to fund that school. Is that school still a priority for us?” Hawkins said. “Long term, are we going to do something different? Are we going to maybe build a smaller school? … All of those questions will be coming up with conversations between city council and the school board.”