School security back at No. 1 priority in IWCS capital plan

Published 7:06 pm Friday, January 27, 2023

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Isle of Wight County’s School Board is set to vote in February on a revised capital improvements plan, which restores school security upgrades as its top priority.

In 2022, in the wake of the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, Isle of Wight County Schools staff proposed redesigning all nine school lobbies to include “vestibules” starting next school year. The term refers to an enclosed area at a school’s main entrance where visitors would need to check in with the school’s office before interior doors allowing access to the rest of the building are unlocked.

As of December, the draft plan had changed to list replacing the 1960s-era Westside Elementary as the school division’s No. 1 priority. Now, with two new members on the board – Mark Wooster in the District 2 seat and Jason Maresh in the District 4 seat – the plan has changed again.

Administrators, as of Jan. 19, are proposing to add 25 two-lane screening devices at a cost of $100,000 apiece, or $2.5 million in total. The vestibules, by comparison, were projected to cost $901,000 as of August.

At the School Board’s Jan. 19 meeting, staff members showed a demonstration video by Evolv Technologies, a potential vendor of such a system, which is already in place in neighboring Franklin City Public Schools. The system, according to Evolv’s website, would allow for the rapid screening of students and visitors by using artificial intelligence to distinguish between weapons and other metallic objects.

Building a $5.5 million “fleet services building” for maintenance on school buses, and renovating the existing circa-1955 bus garage for an additional $100,000, is now listed as the school division’s No. 2 priority.

As of December, school officials had proposed replacing the 1960s-era Westside Elementary with a middle school capable of housing just over 1,000 students in grades 5-7 as the school division’s top priority, but the board unanimously decided to move the project downward on the priority list to No. 3. The plan as of December had been to move fourth-graders at Westside, which currently houses grades 4-6, back to Carrollton Elementary, which houses preschool through third grade currently but would include fourth grade once the new middle school is built. But making Carrollton PreK-4 is no longer feasible due to capacity issues at the circa-1993 school, according to school division staff.

As of 2020, the School Board had planned to model Westside’s replacement off Georgie D. Tyler Middle School, which Isle of Wight had built for roughly $22 million in 2014. In 2022, a committee of parents, students and teachers had recommended the board instead model the new school off Col. Fred Cherry Middle School, which opened its doors in Suffolk in 2018. As of last year, the cost of a Cherry prototype was estimated at $66 million.

The School Board agreed by consensus on Jan. 19 to priorities 1-3. School Board member Denise Tynes proposed submitting priorities 1-3 as a package to the county’s Board of Supervisors for funding.

For priorities 4-8, board member Mark Wooster proposed expanding Isle of Wight’s career and technical education programs as No. 4, renovating the Smithfield High School band and chorus rooms as No. 5, universal preschool as No. 6, and improvements to Smithfield and Windsor high schools’ baseball and football fields as either No. 7 or No. 8.

According to division staff, an expansion of the division’s CTE offerings could entail specialized building trades programs such as plumbing, electrical or heating and air-conditioning, a veterinary technician program, a dental or pharmacy technician program or an automotive mechanic program.

Expanding Smithfield High’s band and chorus room had been listed in last place as of the December draft of the capital plan. As of Jan. 19, the estimated cost was $1.2 million for the band room and another $554,400 for the chorus room, not including architect fees or a contingency budget. The band had 58 students during the fall semester and has 49 this semester. The chorus had 76 students last fall and currently has 86, spread across three 90-minute class blocks.

Universal preschool would give all parents of 4-year-old children the ability to enroll their child in a publicly-funded PreK education program. To accommodate the estimated number of preschoolers, based on a current enrollment of 359 kindergartners across the county’s five elementary schools, would require an additional 15 classrooms beyond what each school currently allocates for its preschool program. Windsor Elementary operates the “Little Sprouts” program, which partners high school early childhood career and technical education students with preschoolers to allow them to gain experience while providing child care services, but the program has limited space and gives priority to Isle of Wight County Schools employees in need of day care during school hours.

Drainage and track upgrades to Smithfield and Windsor high schools’ football fields, leaving each field as grass, would cost an estimated $770,000. To replace the grass with synthetic turf would cost an estimated $2.6 million. The Virginia High School League, which serves as the statewide regulatory organization for public high school sports, now requires synthetic surfaces for a school to host regional or statewide tournaments. According to division staff, Smithfield High has 375 students spread over 13 teams that play on the SHS field. Another 250 students, also spread over 13 teams, play on the field at Windsor High.

The baseball and softball field upgrades would entail adding lights to each field at an estimated cost of $1.3 million for both high schools. According to division staff, the Windsor High softball field is the only one currently lighted, and those lights need to be upgraded.

Once the School Board votes on a final list of priorities in its capital plan, the plan is forwarded to county supervisors, who have the final say over which school projects get funded in the county’s overall capital improvements plan.