By Kelly Mae Ross
The Parry McCluer Middle School boiler roars as it struggles to pump heat and hot water through the entire middle school building.
“My concern about the boiler is it’s going to break down and then we will have no heat in this building,” said city Schools Superintendent Rebecca Gates. “And to get a new boiler, I can’t even imagine what that would cost.”
It would cost more than the middle school can afford.
Gates is taking on the governor’s office over money she said it promised her but now wants back.
The money was intended to make Parry McCluer more energy-efficient, including replacing the school’s 60-year-old boiler.
The Buena Vista school district designated $16,903 for boiler repairs for the current school year, according to its 2011-2012 budget. But the four district schools have already used $15,815 on repairing other boilers.
And the district’s $76,963 in reserve funds won’t be enough for a new boiler if the old one breaks beyond repair.
State money could have taken care of the problem two years ago.
In 2009, Buena Vista schools applied for federal stimulus money the state was giving to Virginia schools in need of building repairs.
The Virginia Department of Education and the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy approved Parry McCluer Middle School for a $510,000 interest-free loan in an executive order signed by former Gov. Tim Kaine in 2010.
The school district would have to issue bonds to pay for the repairs, but the stimulus money would eliminate interest payments and save the school money.
The city had to allow the people of Buena Vista to vote on the bond’s issuance before the school could receive the loan.
But Gates said she believes their approval wasn’t enough for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who succeeded Kaine.
After he took office in January 2010, he issued an executive order that made it expensive for the school district to issue bonds. Buena Vista’s city attorney says the city can’t afford the bond issuance as a result of the order.
Gates said the Virginia Department of Education Finance Department has asked her to write a letter stating she would give up the improvement money so that another school could use it.
But the Department of Education said in an email, “We asked them if they anticipated not using their remaining bond allocation; we did not ask them or direct them to waive it.”
Gates said she has no plans to give up the money, and she drafted a letter to the governor’s office asking him to reconsider his administration’s decision.
The city loses this interest-free loan opportunity if it doesn’t act by June 30. And the boiler continues to deteriorate.
Steam spews from its pipes and creates an eerie, hot mist that surrounds the mammoth machine. Within the last two years, Parry McCluer had to replace its gym floor because leaking steam from the boiler caused irreversible damage.
The boiler battle is a small example of bigger money struggles Gates will face over the next few months.
All Virginia public schools receive some money from the state, but the Buena Vista district has become more dependent on state funds since the 2008 recession.
At a Buena Vista School Board Finance Committee meeting Jan. 24, Gates said the district would face a $360,000 shortfall if McDonnell’s proposed budget bill is enacted.
Gates said she is also bracing herself for less money from the city, which funds the portion of the schools’ budget that the state doesn’t.
Gates said she hopes to hold a meeting of the school board and city finance committees in the next few weeks.
“We want [the city manager] to see a clear picture of how bare-bones our budget is already,” she said.
A large, unexpected cost — such as a new boiler — could easily wreck the district’s tight budget.
And nobody knows how long the middle school boiler will last.
Water from an overhead pipe steadily drips onto the shirt of Jimmy Mason, maintenance director for Buena Vista schools. He has to yell to be heard over the boiler’s rumble.
“We don’t have any major problems right now,” Mason said. “Knock on wood.”