Worried about the safety of future students at Manassas's planned intermediate school, a City Council member said that an electrical substation must be moved from the site -- even if it costs $3 million.
The substation, located on a 15-acre site known as Signal Hill, could pose a health risk to children, council member Eugene R. Rainville (R) said last week. The site was chosen for a new intermediate school by the city's School Board in November.
"I don't think we should take that risk, not for a couple million dollars," Rainville said at a joint meeting of the City Council and School Board.
With May elections over, the politicians of the council and school board addressed some of the warts of the intermediate school project. Council member Ulysses X. "Xerk" White (R) argued at length that the site was not right for the school, and questioned what damage the power station could inflict on students until it can be moved. The school board chairman also said that the substation should be moved.
White cautioned other City Council and School Board members against "rushing to judgment" on the site, insisting that the bodies could do better in terms of size and cost.
"I don't hear anyone saying, 'This isn't right,' " he said. "Everyone is just marching in lockstep. . . . I guarantee you in the next five years, we'll say this was just not a good site."
If city school officials don't agree to relocate the substation and find a way to pay for it, Rainville said, he will not support a final agreement with the chosen contractor, M.B. Kahn Construction Co. of Columbia, S.C. That agreement was approved by the School Board last week.
Several school officials, as far back as January, have downplayed the substation, saying it was not a major concern. Last week, however, School Board Chairman Arthur P. Bushnell acknowledged that he, too, would like to move it. "My goal would be to come back to council and ask to move the substation," he said.
The intermediate school, slated to be ready by September 2005, is already at least four months behind schedule, with several city and schools officials citing different reasons for the delay.
These are the latest twists in a controversial, drawn-out process that has repeatedly put the City Council and School Board at odds. In recent months, residents have mobilized privately and publicly on both sides of the school proposal.
A hot campaign topic leading up to the citywide elections May 4, city School Board incumbents asked voters to allow them to finish work on the school to relieve crowding. All four were reelected.
But, last week, City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes called the whole process "one of the worst" he has ever taken part in, adding that "we've got to find a better way to do this." Better communication between city and schools officials is a must, he said.
Virginia's Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA) had never been used in Manassas before this. The law gives local jurisdictions the power to hand over more authority to private companies in developing such projects. It allowed the city's School Board to select both Kahn and the Signal Hill site largely behind closed doors.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on authorizing a $32 million bond referendum this week. The proposal calls for $28 million for the new school, $3.5 million for renovations to Jennie Dean Elementary and $500,000 for standard bond issuance costs.
Any additional costs involved in moving the substation should come out of the schools' budget, Rainville said.
"They've got $10 million in their fund balance," he said.
But School Board member Scott Albrecht said that opening the intermediate school remains the top priority.
"We have an immediate problem with overcrowding at the four elementary schools and the middle school, and it's only getting worse every year," Albrecht said.
Bushnell could not be reached for comment Friday.
After talking to city Utility Director Allen Todd, Rainville said he decided that sending children to school next to a substation is wrong.
"I was okay until I heard that other school districts were moving their schools away from power stations, and that they weren't building playgrounds underneath power lines anymore," Rainville said. "It says to me that we need to move that power station."
Todd said it's perfectly safe.
"For the previous 15 years, nobody has been able to establish a cause-and-effect relationship," Todd said. "The worries that were there in the late '80s and early '90s no longer exist in 2004." Todd cited a "definitive" 2000 study by the Virginia Department of Health. It reported that "there is no conclusive and convincing evidence that exposure to extremely low frequency EMF emanated from nearby high voltage transmission lines is causally associated with an increased incidence of cancer or other detrimental health effects in humans."
"I feel very good about that site location," Todd said.
The comprehensive agreement approved by the School Board last week contained a major change that came at the recommendation of Rainville. Kahn would still manage construction, but the School Board would make all the final decisions.