On Nov. 10, about 2 1/2 inches of rain caused the roofs of eight aging Newport News schools and a telecommunications building to leak.
Crews rushed from one to another trying to patch them before they began to drip into classrooms, libraries, gymnasiums and offices.
"In this type of weather, it's basically an all-day thing," said Everette Turner, roofer crew leader.
Two days after the storm, the 26-year-old HVAC system at Huntington Middle School sprung a leak, and water from the boiler seeped into the ceiling tile of a classroom and hallway.
Six roof replacements that officials say are desperately needed — including Warwick High, which was also leaking in the rain — will not be funded in the next five years if a proposed city capital plan is approved. Neither will 11 HVAC replacements, nine renovation projects and 42 school bus replacements.
In Virginia, school divisions rely fully on their localities for capital project funding.
School officials call it a "capital funding crisis."
City Manager Jim Bourey and Mayor McKinley Price defend the proposed plan, pointing out that some city projects are going unfunded as well.
The city's proposed five-year capital improvement plan includes $41.4 million in school projects — about half the $80.5 million the school division requested.
"We tried to give them more money this year, but there just really isn't any ability to fund any additional money to them beyond that," Bourey said.
Keith Webb, the schools' executive director of plant services, went back to the drawing board, cutting out half the projects. That list then ended up in the capital plan recommended to the City Council. The council will vote in January.
"It appears as though the perception is that the request is a wish list, and we're just not getting the reality communicated through that most of our list has essential items we need to have our buildings operating over the foreseeable future," School Board Chairman Jeff Stodghill said. "Our School Board believes it is not an option to continue the status quo."
The six roofs not chosen to be replaced in the next five years were all installed in the 1990s, Webb said. They are no longer under warranty, and are beyond their normal 20-year lives.
In addition to the frequent leaks, many of them include gravel, which current building codes prohibit because the stones could fly into the streets in heavy winds or a hurricane — a public safety hazard.
HVAC systems have an expected lifespan of about 15 years. The 11 systems not chosen for replacement in the next five years were installed in the 1990s or early 2000s, Webb said.
"If it's put off too long, we're going to be looking at buildings that have leaky roofs and HVACs that break and we'll be telling council we have an emergency situation," Stodghill said. "We don't have to be there."
Long lead time
At Richneck Elementary, which was rejected from the plan, an HVAC failure could mean months without heat or air conditioning.
"Equipment of this nature and size is not stocked and thus must be manufactured upon order," Webb wrote in his request. "Lead time can stretch into months during which time rental equipment must be used at an expense higher than normal operating expense."
Some of the HVAC equipment at the telecommunications facility, used during emergencies, was installed as long ago as 1986. HVAC failure there could mean that public needs cannot be met in times of severe weather or emergency, Webb wrote.
The state recommends replacing school buses after 15 years. Newport News has 20 that are 16 years old and another 59 that are at the 15-year mark. The city plan replaces an average of 35 buses annually, which doesn't quite keep up.
A request to replace the cabinetry at all elementary and early childhood center schools, with an average age of 54 years, was also denied. The cabinets have a useful life of 20 years, Webb wrote.
A new school, the Magruder STEM Academy, will open next year, but the reconstruction of Huntington Middle School in the Southeast Community is not planned to begin until 2022 at the earliest.
Huntington was built in 1936 as a high school. The design cost for its replacement, the first step, is included in the plan, but not until fiscal year 2020.
"Huntington is a high school that's being used a s middle school that's way bigger than it needs to be, not energy efficient and not a stimulating experience for a middle school for kids in the 21st century," Stodghill said.
During a recent council work session, South District Councilwoman Saundra Cherry pressed city officials on why the school could not be rebuilt sooner.
"We put a whole lot of things in front of it," Cherry said. "We're talking about our schools and our children. Why are we waiting until 2020 to do a design?"
Bourey responded that the city does not have the money to do it sooner. Demolishing and rebuilding the school carries a big price tag — about $54 million total.
Cherry and Councilwoman Pat Woodbury voted against last year's capital plan, citing their concerns about school funding and other issues. The plan passed 5-2.
While Huntington is the oldest, seven other schools were built in the 1950s and 13 were built in the 1960s.
Stodghill and School Board member Carlton Ashby made a plea for more money at the council's last meeting.
"I'm very concerned about our students," Ashby said. "If it's cold in the winter, they need to have heat, if it's hot during the spring and summer, it needs to be cool. Research clearly tells us the setting of an environment for children to learn has to be conducive and very comfortable."
Price, a former School Board member, said he was glad to see the school officials at the meeting making their case, but didn't think any more city money could go toward the school projects in the upcoming plan.
"I think the school system needs to be understanding of the realistic financial situation of the city," Price said. "The schools are looking only at the schools. We have to look at the whole city."
Focus on economic development
From a city perspective, there is one big problem in pouring money into things like roof and HVAC replacements — they don't generate revenue.
Price and Bourey make the case that the city needs to invest in projects — like the Tech Center Research Park near the corner of Oyster Point Road and Jefferson Avenue — that will attract new businesses and residents and raise property values. The idea is to bring more revenue to the city so the city can fund more capital projects in the future.
The Tech Center Research Park is slated to receive the largest chunk of city funds, not counting grant funds, at $36.65 million over six years. That will mainly cover the cost to relocate the school division's bus facility to make way for the research park and a potential Jefferson Lab expansion. The research park is planned to include about one million square feet of space spread across about 11 office buildings.
"At Tech Center, we get new retail, new business taxes in — all of those things have an effect on the amount of revenue that comes in, short of raising taxes, which I'm sure nobody wants to do," Price said.
Bourey said the city expects to receive $4 million in annual sales and property taxes from the neighboring Tech Center Marketplace, starting next fiscal year, which includes retail and housing and is privately funded.
The city expects about another $4 million in tax revenue from the neighboring research park. The starting year is harder to predict than the Marketplace, but is a "number of years in the future," Bourey said.
"As our revenues grow, hopefully we'll have more room to be able to accommodate more projects," Bourey said.
The five-year plan proposed this year includes $197 million in city money — cash and bond funding – up about $13.5 million from last year's $183.5 million.
Stodghill argues that businesses and people won't move to Newport News unless the schools are in decent shape, too.
"In a lot of ways, the school division needs to be as important as an economic development attraction for the city to grow," Stodghill said. "If you're going to attract people to live in the city, you've got to have school facilities they'd be willing to put their kids into. You can't do that with 48-year-old schools that were there when I went to school."
But Bourey is standing firm on the proposed capital plan.
"What they want to have is not a surprise," Bourey said. "And the fact they would want more is not a surprise. Other departments may have requests they didn't get, as well."
That was the case with the city public buildings category, which is slated to get $37.8 million of the $104 million it requested — about 36 percent.
"As finances change, so will the resources that are distributed," Price said. "We are doing what we can when we can."
Declined requests in the five-year plan
- Roof replacements at Lee Hall Elementary, Marshall Early Learning Center, Heritage High, Woodside High, Richneck Elementary, Warwick High: $9,865,380
- HVAC replacements at Denbigh Learning Center, Dozier Middle, Dutrow Elementary, Hilton Elementary, Jenkins Elementary, Marshall Early Learning Center, Richneck Elementary, South Morrison Community Education Center, Yates Elementary, telecommunications facility, Warwick High School Senior Center: $17,530,000
- Cabinet replacements at all elementary and early childhood center schools: $2.4 million
- Sidewalk/asphalt maintenance at various locations: $2 million
- Mobile classroom replacement at Dozier Middle School: $250,000
- 43 busses: $3.5 million
- Pearl Bailey Library expansion study: $60,000
- New Central Precinct facility: $6 million
- City Farm barn renovation and building demolitions: $500,000
- New dispatch center/training facility: $14 million
- New K-9 kennels and impound lot: $1.5 million
- New North Precinct facility: $600,000
- Police vehicle storage garage: $600,000
- New Fire Station 9: $1 million
- Vehicle services facility expansion: $3 million
- New equipment to track individuals through the criminal justice system: $1 million
Clift can be reached by phone at 757-247-7870.