Several members of the Jefferson County Board of Education were visibly unsatisfied with the lack of detail they were receiving about the water and sewer connections for the new Shepherdstown elementary school site, prompting them to invite Stephanie Reel, General Manager of Jefferson Utilities, and Jacquelyn Milliron, former member of the Charles Town Utility Board, to speak from the audience in what amounted to an impromptu public workshop at the November 28 meeting. That ad hoc discussion raised more questions than it answered and at the end of an occasionally pointed exchange between board members and Joyce White, the Deputy Superintendent of Operations, the Board deferred action to its next meeting (Dec 12, 6 pm, Washington HS auditorium), requesting that White return with additional specific information on the water and sewer project.
Backing Up To The Beginning
Jefferson County Schools submitted a grant application to the West Virginia School Building Authority (SBA) in February 2021. That document projected a construction budget of $18 million for the Shepherdstown elementary school project plus an additional $2 million to cover architect fees, engineering fees, surveys, and other expenses. That application also indicates connections to public water and sewer as part of the plan. At the November 14 school board meeting, Superintendent Bondi Shay Gibson-Learn, along with White and project architect Randy Jones, asked the Board to make a choice — the public utility option versus an on-site well and septic/treatment facility for the project. “Some things have come to light” was how Gibson-Learn introduced the question, suggesting that circumstances had changed regarding the utility connection options.
An Uncertain Path
Gibson-Learn indicated the school system had not anticipated it would need to manage the construction of the water and sewer lines, which also includes the need to obtain easements from private property owners along a one mile stretch of Shepherdstown Pike to connect the new pipes into the existing utility network. Jones, the architect, said that typical practice was that utilities would perform this work for the school and Gibson-Learn emphasized that the school system was surprised when the Corporation of Shepherdstown informed the schools that they would be responsible for constructing the “mainline extension” to serve the school property.
Construction Costs Expected To Increase
At the November 28 school board meeting, White backed away from the argument that the schools had been misled by Shepherdstown and characterized the on-site utility option as a potential cost-saving choice, to offset expected cost increases in the building construction. White did not provide the Board with a timetable for when she expected to receive bids for the building construction, but she did share in response to another question that the construction costs on school projects elsewhere in the state have been running 25 percent higher than the initial planning budgets due to inflation and cost increases. That would amount potentially to an additional $4.5 million for the Shepherdstown project.
According to public records, the SBA has been making supplemental grants for other WV school projects facing cost increases, but also requiring those projects to be scaled back to the SBA’s minimum specifications. To date, Jefferson County Schools does not appear to have shared any information with the SBA or the LSIC (community members involved with reviewing the project) to indicate that they might be considering modifications to the building design due to budget concerns.
Follow updates on this story at WeAreTheObserver.com/school-construction.By Steve Pearson