Old, out-of-date and falling apart: Stafford schools struggle with maintenance issues

by | Mar 29, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Stafford

At first glance, Stafford County’s Edward E. Drew Jr. Middle School seems like any other public school.

Hallways filled with lockers and students.

The smell of tater tots wafting from the cafeteria.

A slight musty odor in the gymnasium.

Outdated, maybe, but full of the buzzy energy of modern preteens.  

Upon closer inspection, however, the school starts to show its age. Mechanical and electrical systems installed nearly 30 years ago are becoming expensive to repair. Some equipment is simply obsolete.

A manhole to access high voltage lines is prone to filling with rainwater and leaks. And then, there’s the cockroaches in the cafeteria, the cracks in the cinderblock walls and mold in the locker room.   

Built in 1951, Drew Middle School is at the top of the replace, repair, renovate (the three R’s) priority list for Stafford County Public Schools, along with Rising Star Early Learning Center, which operates in a building established in the 1930s. Now, SCPS is ringing the bell that these projects should be on a critical infrastructure list.  

The county is growing at a rate faster than the aging buildings — and finances — can keep up with. The school division is bracing for an additional 700 students each year, sparking a race to expand capacity on the 35 campuses it currently manages while also planning for new schools.  

‘Fingers crossed’ compressor holds up

The suggestion to rebuild Drew first showed up in the 2007 school board‘s capital improvement projects budget. Currently, it is in the conceptual phase, with a $96.5 million price tag and the earliest possible opening in fall 2028.  

“And that’s everybody agreeing on everything today,” SCPS Superintendent Thomas Taylor said. “It’s not an overnight process. You can’t say, ‘I want a school,’ and then tomorrow the school shows up. There’s land acquisition, there’s construction, you’re talking a two- to three-year process no matter what.”

School projects are typically financed through bond financing, current revenues, and proffers. Large capital projects are primarily funded through the semi-annual Virginia Public School Authority pooled bond program. The money borrowed for school construction is recorded in the Capital Improvements Fund and then transferred directly to the School Construction Fund. The School Construction Fund is responsible for the acquisition, construction, and equipping of new schools, as well as renovations and additions to older schools. Approximately $5 million in bond funding and $1.4 million in 3R set-aside funds are allocated to school projects annually.  

In a county where the median household income is $128,036 (2022 U.S.Census), Stafford’s per pupil spending is $13,048 per student, placing it at 111 out of 132 localities in per pupil expenditure.

“One of the challenges that we’re finding is to come into a school the size of, like, Drew, for instance, it’s about $20 million worth of HVAC equipment that, if we were to say, we have to keep this open more than, you know, four or five more years, would have to be replaced,” said Jason Towery, SCPS executive director of facilities and maintenance.

Because of the short timeline to rebuild the school, the school board opted to only perform critical and emergency replacements as needed. This summer, SCPS will spend about $218,500 to replace a failed compressor in a rooftop air handler unit, installed in 1998, that services several classrooms and the library. 

“Fingers crossed we make it through the next couple of months without more failures,” Towery said.  

First-hand view of concerns

The Stafford Board of Supervisors continues to wrangle with its Fiscal Year 2024 budget. The board recently heard from county Finance and Budget Director Andrea Light, who recommended a “consensus” real estate tax rate of $0.908 per $100 of assessed value. The rate would mean a decrease in revenue for the schools from $15 million to $13 million and eliminate proposed increases to the 3R needs and capital maintenance.

On a recent tour of the middle school with Towery, a Free Press reporter saw firsthand some of the most concerning issues in the building.  

“If you had been here about a year ago you would have seen a lot of toilet wipes and sewage because we were having constant sewage backup,” Towery said, pointing to plumbing in a maintenance room in the school.

“It was flowing out into the courtyard of the [Heather Empfield Day School]. We had to do an emergency repair last May. The sewage main had collapsed due to age. We were having to jet it clean it every couple of days just to keep things flowing. We had to replace the pipe from the maintenance room through the courtyard and out to the parking lot.”

Jason Towery (right), the executive director for facilities and maintenance for Stafford County Public Schools, shows off equipment in need of repair at Drew Middle School in Stafford on March 22. Photo by Tristan Lorei.

Towery pointed out a boiler that is over 30 years old, and hot water pipes that operate at high pressure that will need to be replaced soon.

“We had a guy in recently to work on some of this, and as he was taking off some of the insulation material he noticed the pipes underneath were at the end of life,” he said. “It’s hard to see unless you’re constantly going through and pulling off all the insulation, which is not a daily task obviously.”  

A tragedy averted

Then Towery told a story that could have been a tragedy if the timing had been different. Towery recalled a “terrible experience” on a recent Tuesday evening at Rodney Thompson Middle School. A six-inch hot water pipe failed and dumped a few hundred gallons of 165-degree scalding hot water into the cafeteria.

“It was so hot it stripped the wax right off the floor,” Towery said. “Thankfully it happened at night, when no one was in the building. The crews that responded said it was like a sauna in there, it was so hot.”  

“That’s what we’re talking about when we’re saying, we catch some things but it’s the things that we don’t see or can’t catch that are the problems. We cannot continue to fund these critical systems on a shoestring budget.”  

Athletic facilities in disrepair

The track at Mountain View High School. Photo courtesy of SCPS.

It’s not just the buildings that are in various states of disrepair. The Mountain View High School track has been shut down for competition this season because the running surfaces are unusable.

Greg Margheim, athletics director at Mountain View High School, said losing the track is a significant issue for students.
“Our athletes are unable to perform turns in these lanes which is a huge deal, especially with relays as it affects working on the timing of handoffs. Losing our two track meets is a shame. This means our kids don’t get a chance to have a meet at home, and that’s really a disappointment for them.”

A similar situation is happening at many other athletic facilities in the school division. At Brooke Point High School, a set of malfunctioning bleachers have rendered the gym largely unusable for competitive events. The Dixon-Smith Middle School track has closed; the tennis courts at Dixon-Smith, Rodney Thompson and Gayle middle schools are also unusable due to their deteriorating conditions

“We expect the conditions at these facilities and elsewhere will rapidly deteriorate in the next few years if immediate action isn’t taken to begin addressing the issues,” Towery said. “Parking lots are also a concern because marching bands practice in them as does driver education.”

Taylor says he knows there are tough decisions that need to be made in terms of financing the county and the school system.

“At some point, it is just a bad financial decision not to replace these school buildings,” he said.  “When something breaks in county government, they usually just fix it.

“But when something breaks on the school side, we have to check a bank account first.  That’s painful for our kids and for our community. And I don’t think a whole lot of our community members really understand why it has to be that way … bad news doesn’t get better with age.” 

Share This