VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Beach City Council opted again Tuesday night to defer a vote on an agreement that officials say could potentially save taxpayers millions of dollars on future school construction.
The vote was 8-1 Tuesday, with Councilman Joash Schulman voting no. The agreement vote was previously deferred on September 6 and October 18 of 2022, after the previous Virginia Beach School Board OK’d the interim agreement on their end back in August.
The interim agreement, resolution No. 9 on the council’s docket Tuesday, would have authorized the Virginia Beach School Board to enter into a deal with S.B. Ballard Construction Company for design work for the potential construction of three area schools identified for replacement: Princess Anne High, B.F. Williams/Bayside 6th and Bayside High School, all built in the 1950s/60s.
This proposal is under the Virginia Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act (PPEA), which differs from the typical bid-build process used for school construction, Virginia Beach City Public Schools told council in a Feb. 7 informal session. S.B. Ballard was one of two firms that sent unsolicited proposals as part of the PPEA, and Ballard was eventually selected as the preferred option.
Through the PPEA, the contractor (which would be S.B. Ballard) would also be involved in design process. Typically through the bid-build, one firm would create the design and contractors would then bid on the contract to build. VBCPS officials think having Ballard be a part of both of those would streamline the process and likely save millions. The design for schools such as Bayside could then be used as a blueprint for more schools in the future, further cutting down on costs.
“The importance of that is if the contractor sees a design element that is going to cost millions of dollars more, they have the opportunity in that design to say ‘if you make that decision to design the building in that way, it is going to cost many millions of dollars more,’” said VBCPS Chief Operations Officer Jack Freeman in the Feb. 7 meeting.
This comes as projected costs for school construction have ballooned with inflation. The three schools were estimated to cost about $428 million total when budgets were updated over two years ago, per Melissa Ingram with VBCPS. But inflation has pushed the projected cost for the three schools north of $700 million (proposed in the CIP 2024 budget).
The PPEA could not only trim tens or hundreds of millions of dollars off that estimate, VBCPS officials say, but schools could also open up much quicker (4-plus years earlier for Betty F. Williams and 7-plus years for Bayside).
VBCPS says the interim agreement (using an already appropriated $15.4 million) would be “low risk” and just OK the design process. An extensive agreement that would then approve the construction of the three schools would take another vote. VBCPS would still have rights to the design materials if an extensive agreement isn’t reached, officials say.
At Tuesday’s meeting, speakers and councilmembers spoke about the need to keep costs as low as possible, including the potential of shrinking the size of the proposed schools, citing a decrease in attendance levels in the district.
Councilman Chris Taylor, who motioned to defer voting on the agreement, says he’s been in contact with school board members and constituents and says there may be a lack of consensus about the process with the newly elected school board. He emphasized Ballard has “an incredible reputation of building schools, building them on time” and that the deferral was more about “a responsibility to taxpayers to make sure we get this right.”
Vice Mayor Rosemary Wilson, a former school board member who also sent in a request to approve the interim agreement, said in the Feb. 7 informal meeting that the $718 million figure was “scary” and council needed to act on Feb. 21.
She agreed Tuesday night that schools have been built too large and cutting back on square footage and more intricate design features would save money.
Councilman Schulman said Tuesday “what scares me is the number that if we don’t get ourselves at least through design, where we end up otherwise.” He added that students at Betty F. Williams in his district, mostly minority students, “deserve a better place to learn” and talked about how approving the PPEA process would move timelines up considerably. He also says concerns about declining enrollment is a “pessimistic view” about the future of the district.
“If we do our job in creating an economy that attracts new residents and businesses here we’re going to need more space for our schools. I’m an optimist and think that will happen.”
The interim agreement vote has been pushed to April 18’s formal session, and the new school board will be briefed and vote on the agreement again ahead of that time, officials say.
Relatedly, council also voted to appropriate $48 million in school reversion funds from the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget to VBCPS’ 2022-2023 budget, the “lion’s share” of which will go to school construction, Wilson said.
Schulman explained that the schools didn’t go under budget by $48 million, but by less than 1% (roughly $15 million). “The rest of this money is over execution of revenues and other sources,” Schulman said. With that, he pitched looking into future tax relief for residents “to the extent possible” come budget time.