With several members underlining their continuing displeasure with the site chosen for Manassas's planned intermediate school, the City Council took a critical step forward on the project last week, authorizing millions in bonds to pay for it.
Council members unanimously authorized a $31.5 million general obligation bond, $28 million of which will go toward the new school. An additional $3.5 million will be used to renovate and improve Jennie Dean Elementary, and $250,000 will cover typical bond issuance costs, said Manassas City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes.
Any leftover funds would be used to pay for improvements to Weems or Haydon elementary schools, said School Board member Scott Albrecht.
"We've got to get the money," said council member Eugene R. Rainville (R), explaining his support for the bond. But "I still have an issue with the substation. . . . My position is, move the substation or move the school."
An electrical substation sits on the School Board's chosen 15-acre site, known as Signal Hill. Rainville has said that he will not support a final agreement with the chosen contractor, M.B. Kahn of Columbia, S.C., if the substation isn't moved, as it could pose a health threat to children.
Rainville and council member Robert Oliver (R) urged school officials to consider another site.
One suggested location was at Grant Avenue and Hastings Drive, Hughes said. The site, which is zoned for commercial development, was not available when school officials were seeking possible locations, Hughes said.
The site is made up of two parcels -- one is 11 acres and another is about seven acres -- Albrecht said, adding that school officials were scheduled to visit it Friday.
Manassas already has spent about six months and some $300,000 on engineering and analysis work on the city-owned Signal Hill site. Albrecht said that before choosing another site, he would have to be sure that doing so offered a clear advantage.
"We do know [the Signal Hill site] is a little bit tight, but it meets our needs," he said. "It's a good site. We know what we have works."
At the same time, Albrecht said, he promised himself and city residents that he would "personally go in with an open mind."
Manassas School Superintendent Sidney "Chip" Zullinger is scheduled to present an analysis of the new site to City Council members at tomorrow's meeting.
"All I can do is take it back to School Board members," Zullinger said.
Last week City Council members continued to voice reservations over the quality of the Signal Hill site, which the School Board chose in November.
Council member Ulysses X. White (R) said he had "no problem with the bond issue" but argued the need to "fully address" concerns over the possible health risks of the substation and the cost and size of the Signal Hill site before "we can move forward."
Either way, the City Council's unanimous vote will bode well when it comes to selling the bonds at a favorable interest rate, Hughes said. Vice Mayor Harry J. "Hal" Parrish II (R) was absent.
The city's recently improved bond rating -- from AA-minus to AA -- by Standard & Poor's should also help. The upgraded rating is based on the city's sound financial management, the stability of the City Council, the redevelopment of Old Town, other commercial and industrial development, the strength of the local economy and the state's AAA bond rating, Hughes said.
Still, Hughes called the process used to develop the school "one of the worst" he has ever been involved in.
The City Council and School Board have acknowledged a communication breakdown. Some people have pointed to a lack of public disclosure, while others have attributed tensions to the fact that Virginia's Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 is new to Manassas. The law gives local jurisdictions the power to hand over more authority to private companies and allowed the School Board to select the contractor and the site largely behind closed doors.
Last month the School Board approved a final agreement with Kahn. The City Council is scheduled to consider the agreement at tomorrow night's meeting.