Manassas School Board awaits council action on headquarters

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More than five months after approving the purchase of its current headquarters building, the Manassas School Board is still waiting for a “yes” from the City Council to finalize the deal.

In August, the School Board approved a budget amendment to buy the building it currently rents at 8700 Centreville Road for $10.75 million. School officials and board members agreed that the purchase opportunity that had just recently become available would be cheaper and more sensible than its previous long-term plan to renovate the soon-to-be-former police headquarters at a cost of $11.1 million.

But the plan has hit a snag, with the City Council so far declining to make the funds available and approve the purchase. Now, five months later, the school division is asking for a final answer, saying the council has declined to accelerate its decision-making process as the Centreville Road building’s seller continues to wait.

“This has been ongoing. It’s been about seven months now, and although we voted in August, we’re still on the same track. We still want to buy the building,” School Board Chair Suzanne Seaberg said.

She told InsideNoVa that she hopes the issue will be resolved during the council’s Feb. 2 retreat. “We’ve had so many meetings. We’ve had two joint meetings, every School Board meeting, and we were 100% all in favor of buying this building, because we know it’s what’s best for our students and we think it’s what’s best for the taxpayers of the city of Manassas.”

Pros and cons of the purchase

The idea behind the purchase is that in the short term, the building has more than 15,000 square feet available that the school system could use. It also has tenants that generate nearly $1 million annually in rental income.

In the coming years, school system officials say, many of those tenants will be moving out, making even more space available for potential career and technical education training, child care for students and staff, evening school or anything other areas the schools want to enhance their offerings in.

It would come with liabilities, though. According to Andy Hawkins, the Manassas school system’s finance and operations director, the building would come with about $220,000 in annual operating costs and $500,000 annually in needed upgrades. Still, the school system projects, the rental income would cover those costs and leave roughly $235,000 left over while those tenants remain.

But at a sometimes-tense joint meeting between the two bodies in November, City Council members raised several potential issues with the deal. For starters, there’d been a yearslong understanding that the school system’s long-term plan was to renovate and lease the current police building on Fairview Avenue once the city’s new $49 million public safety building officially opens later this year.

Several council members contended maintaining the building could cost more than anticipated, that the police station would make a better location for those additional uses given its proximity to Osbourn High School and that the school system’s major capital priority right now should remain on its planned $62 million dollar replacement for Jennie Dean Elementary School, the core of which was built in 1959, making it the oldest school building in the system.

Council member Theresa Coates Ellis also said buying the building would take it off the city’s tax rolls. With an assessed value of $5 million last year, its tax bill for 2023 amounts to over $67,000, but that’s less than half the tax revenue it was generating back in 2016, when its bill was nearly $138,000.

“That building … is one of our largest commercial real estate that generates revenue for our city, and we’d be taking that away from our city. That’s why I don’t like this deal,” Coates Ellis said at the joint meeting. “It also is a building that I personally looked at to lease five years ago, and my real estate agent said, ‘Run, don’t go into that building.’ They have so many issues.”

‘Actions speak louder than words’

At the same meeting , council member Mark Wolfe said the council’s priority in terms of the school system’s capital projects is the new Jennie Dean school. Wolfe suggested that the division renew its lease where it is and consider using the police station for new programming.

But Manassas school system Superintendent Kevin Newman was clearly bothered by the implication that Dean wasn’t a priority. The school division has already committed over $3 million to the project, he said, and it took years of requests for the City Council to agree to a funding plan for the new school back in 2021.

School officials say they should have a decision on exactly which grades the school will serve by the summer, which will give them a better sense of how much the building should cost. They hope it will remain in the range of the $62 million that was originally projected, but the project isn’t funded in the city’s capital improvement program until fiscal 2026.

“I’m not an elected [official], but when someone continuously stressed that the council has made Dean a priority, I’m going to speak to you about making actions speak louder than words,” Newman said, talking about the debt service plan for Jennie Dean that the two sides had agreed to. “We had to follow [City Manager Patrick Pate’s] plan … For one year, to build Dean, it was $120,000 [to begin funding the building]. What did we put in as a school division? $2.8 million. So don’t say that just the council has made Dean a priority — actions say that we have made Dean a priority.”

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