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At School Board retreat, talk of sweeping change

South Boston News
Among the ideas advanced at the Halifax County School Board retreat in Lynchburg: Build a new high school rather than renovate the existing HCHS building; look to consolidate elementaries, with Walter Potts urging the closure of Meadville Elementary; free up student usage of Chromebooks; and do more to implement Advanced Placement classes at the high school. "I'm an AP guy," said new superintendent Mark Lineburg. / July 13, 2017
Building a new high school and closing smaller elementaries dominated discussion at a School Board retreat this week in Lynchburg with new county school superintendent, Mark Lineburg.

School trustees spent Tuesday morning and early afternoon hunkered down for talks at the Lynchburg College student center. While members took no votes or official action, they covered a wide range of subjects — some that portend potentially major changes in the operation and structure of Halifax County Public Schools.

Nowhere was the discussion more sweeping than on the subject of school facilities.

The trustees voiced interest in conducting a comprehensive facility study to ascertain the long-term (15 years) needs, demographic trends and viability of all school buildings. This study would include a look at renovating — or building a replacement for — Halifax County High School, only two years shy of its 40th anniversary.

“We’re going to give a better school to the community than what they have right now,” Dr. Lineburg said, referring either to a remodeled school or a new one to replace HCHS.

“We’ve [gone] long enough with Band-Aids,” said board member Joe Gasperini, ED-4 trustee.

Gasperini, Walter Potts Jr. (ED-8) and Karen Hopkins (ED-2) all vocally supported building a new county high school, though Fay Satterfield (ED-6) cautioned against going into debt: “I think … we could start by cleaning up the high school.”

“I don’t know if building a new high school would be the solution to anything,” she said.

The comprehensive facility study would also look at the football stadium and other sports facilities.

This effort to conduct another, larger study comes on the heels of an assessment released in March 2017 by B&B Consultants in South Boston. That study estimated that a renovation of HCHS would cost more than $22 million. The local firm estimated in December 2016 that a completely new building would come to around $60.5 million.

Gasperini acknowledged that there had been previous studies, but said they only identified solutions to “just bare, preliminary things.”

Potts echoed the need for the new study, and further cited population data from the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center that suggests Halifax County’s population is becoming more clustered around South Boston.

Hamilton Lombard, a research and policy analyst at the Weldon Cooper Center, confirmed that the northern part of the county is losing population — though this is a trend that has occurred in both the county and the town of South Boston. “It looks like the north part lost more than the southern part of the county,” he said.

Some parts of southern Halifax County have even grown in population, he said. By comparison, a section of the northern Halifax-Charlotte border has been depopulated by around 14 percent.

Gasperini suggested that the School Board should consider only Cluster Springs Elementary, South Boston Elementary and the middle school as surefire long-term assets. Potts called for consolidation of schools in the north: “Meadville needs to be closed,” he said.

The long-term assessment of schools is also needed to show that a 15-year, $3.1 million contract with Trane, Inc. can be supported. The School Board and Board of Supervisors are considering an agreement with Trane to install new equipment at school facilities to ensure higher energy efficiency standards, which the company in turn has said will save money for the county.

However, if some county schools are closed within that 15-year period, the contract may not be viable.

Talk of renovating facilities and consolidating elementary schools led to a related discussion: how to redistrict school attendance zones. New zones would likely come with new policies to limit the practice of out-of-zone transfers, as parents move their children for convenience or because they perceive that another school is superior to their home-zone school.

However, Gasperini did note that, “closing buildings doesn’t solve that problem.”

Lineburg said he hoped to inculcate a high, consistent standard across all schools. With that in mind, parents then would not seek to send their kids out of zone.

Freddie Edmunds (ED-5) cautioned, “You have to [enforce] that policy” to make it work.

As for how to pay for facilities improvements, the likely course of action would be to propose a bond referendum for approval by county voters. The bond could be specific to the high school project, or it could cover all needs designated by the School Board, or be a combination of the two.

Gasperini came out in favor of an all-encompassing bond, saying we should “go for the whole thing.”

Six of the eight members of the School Board took part in the out-of-town retreat, with Kim Farson (ED-3) and Monty Lowery (ED-7) not in attendance.

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As a mother of a child who attends Meadville I am against closing a school and its nothing wrong with it. I attended it as a child and loved that school. It is the only decent elementary school in that area that is also the closest for residents in that area. Don't go messing with that school focus on a high school that is infested with roaches, has mold, sinking and god knows what else.

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