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Decision on HCHS tabled, but school pay plan passes

South Boston News
Members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board on the HCHS auditorium stage.
SoVaNow.com / November 21, 2021
The long slog toward a final decision on what to do about Halifax County High School got a little longer Thursday night.

Halifax County supervisors and school board trustees, all 16 of them seated together on the stage of the HCHS auditorium, convened in a rare joint session to hash out the three big issues looming over Halifax County Public Schools — the future of the high school, staff compensation and elementary school consolidation — but appeared to set a clear direction on only one: to grant pay raises to all school employees.

The School Board voted unanimously to adopt a salary scale proposal by Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg to sharply raise pay scales to stay competitive with neighboring school divisions. The School Board vote applies to salaries of both teachers and support staff — a category that includes custodians, school secretaries, aides and other non-teaching positions. Administrators are currently excluded from the pay plan.

However, at the request of ED-5 supervisor Dean Throckmorton, seconded by Garland Ricketts, the Board of Supervisors moved at the outset of Thursday’s joint meeting to strike a planned vote to finance a new high school. Instead, supervisors will refer the matter to the board’s finance committee, leading up to a possible vote by supervisors in December.

The thicket of questions that supervisors and trustees must resolve — “almost mind-boggling,” said ED-1 supervisor Ricky Short — is complicated further by the consequences that each decision may have on the other challenges facing both boards.

Nowhere was this more starkly illustrated than with the School Board’s unanimous vote to move forward with employee pay increases — a decision that could accelerate the timetable for closing one or more of the aging and lightly populated elementary schools in the northern part of the county.

With the Board of Supervisors showing little inclination to raise property taxes to support the long-term costs of the school pay package, the School Board may need to pull the required funds from operational savings that would flow from having fewer elementary schools.

At the same time, an idea by County Administrator Scott Simpson to buy more time for a decision on school consolidation — a three-year grace period wherein some $3.3 million in budget carryover funds could be used to support the cost of the compensation package — was shortened by the School Board’s insistence that pay hikes should be granted to all employees, instructional and non-instructional alike.

That approach will require roughly $1.6 million annually, rather than the $764,000 figure that Simpson had penciled in for a teachers-only pay hike. Under Simpson’s framework, the county could have covered three years of the teacher pay package by tapping $3.3 million in school carryover funds, a pool of money that swelled this year as expenses declined with schools shuttered due to the pandemic.

The pressure to move faster than members of both boards might like on consolidation was ratcheted up further by the School Board’s vote to begin the staff pay increases mid-year, starting in January.

While members of both boards appeared at times Thursday night to struggle with the implications of their actions, Sandra Garner-Coleman, school board representative in ED-3, warned near the end of the meeting that elementary school consolidation is an issue that can no longer be avoided.

“Everybody is just kicking that can down the road, but we’ve got to address it,” she said.

Simpson, speaking the day after Thursday night’s meeting, said he, too, believes that the School Board now has about a year to identify a source of long-term funding for higher employee compensation — either a tax increase or school closings — instead of the three-year period he had originally envisioned.

“You really can’t get very far down the road with that [$3.3 million in school budget surplus funds],” Simpson said. “I think you’re talking about a period of one year, because we’ll be creating next year’s fiscal budget in January and February” to carry through to June 2023.

By winter of 2023, Simpson explained, the county will be putting together the next fiscal year’s budget, and the $3.3 million budget carryover won’t be enough on its own to pay for two full years of the $1.6 million cost of the school compensation package. Of the $3.3 million in carryover funds, more than half a million dollars will be needed to pay for early retirement incentives.

Lineburg, however, expressed confidence that the School Board will have a longer period of time to make a decision on consolidation. Lineburg said there’s a good chance Halifax County Public Schools will receive additional state education funding in 2022 that can be used to support the non-instructional portion of the employee compensation package.

“That lift isn’t as difficult as the teacher pay lift,” he said.

The full cost of raising both instructional and non-instructional employee pay — thus making HCPS school salaries equal to or higher than that of neighboring school divisions — is $2.7 million annually. In his comprehensive compensation plan, Lineburg identifies two sources of savings that lop off roughly $1.1 million of that expense: leaving 10 open positions unfilled, and granting an early retirement incentive to bring down payroll costs by replacing around 30 of the division’s longest-tenured and highest-paid employees with younger and cheaper hires.

While Lineburg sounded a hopeful note on easing the short-term pressure to act on school closings, he added that “$3.3 million is a finite number” and the time will soon come when the county must make decisions on how schools should be configured and paid for.

“The answer to sustaining [employee] compensation is not just consolidation,” he said. “Either consolidate schools or raise taxes; that’s [a matter for] the will of the people,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a year and a half or three years — it’s a decision of the community on whether you want to consolidate or sustain” higher school salaries with the savings from fewer elementary schools or higher taxes, Lineburg suggested.

“Efficiency is always one of those words that sounds good until you get into it,” he said.

No vote, but much talk about a new high school

On one of the big items that was on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting — a decision by supervisors to finance the high school project — Lineburg admitted in a Friday interview that he was frustrated to see supervisors instead table a vote.

“I thought last night could be a night of victory, that we could address compensation in a positive way and get the high school going,” he said. “We talk about efficiency — each month we put off [a decision on HCHS] we’re infringing on the price that will come in” on new construction.

“That $300,000 a month or whatever it is, is real. We need to get rolling on [a replacement building].”

Ricketts, in asking that a vote to finance construction be put off until later, said the full board should have a chance to review the financial data on how much Halifax County can comfortably borrow for school capital needs before making a final decision on HCHS.

That topic will be the centerpiece of two committee meetings tentatively set for Nov. 29 — of the board’s finance committee, and among the three supervisors who sit on the Joint Facilities Committee with three members of the School Board. Supervisors on the joint facilities committee are Dean Throckmorton, Ricky Short and William Bryant Claiborne.

At Thursday’s meeting, Ricketts expressed hesitation to replace rather than renovate what a fellow supervisor, Jeff Francisco, ED-2, called “a big beautiful building.”

However, Francisco and another member up on the auditorium stage — ED-4 school trustee Jay Camp — each spoke on how they have come to conclude that a new building, and not an attempted renovation, is the best choice for Halifax County High School.

“It goes against my grain to tear down a building that has proven to be structurally sound,” said Francisco — but at the same time, he explained the cost of a new building would not be significantly higher than a renovated facility, once other expenditures bundled into the full project cost are accounted for.

The School Board has received a $118 million proposal by construction partners Brand Builds and RRMM Architects of Roanoke to design and build a new high school, with updated athletic facilities, all-new furnishings and fixtures, and other costs that include demolition. The new building itself would cost around $85 million — not far off estimates presented several years ago by architectural firms hired separately by the Board of Supervisors and School Board on the cost to renovate HCHS.

“I believe a new [school] is the way to go,” said Francisco.

By attempting to update the existing HCHS facility, he added, the county could find itself replaying the experience of the courthouse — a project that was estimated at one time to cost around $10 million but ballooned to $30 million after portions of the building had to be scrapped and replaced.

For his part, Camp said that when he joined the School Board in 2020 he was opposed to building a new high school. But with passage of the county’s sales tax, and the evident ability to build a new facility without raising taxes, Camp said he has warmed up to the idea.

He also warned that Halifax County will have a difficult time retaining its teachers if it continues to offer below-market compensation coupled with an outdated high school.

“We’ve lost a lot of teachers to Mecklenburg County,” said Camp. “The comment was made, ‘Just think of all the teachers we’re going to lose to Mecklenburg County because they pay better and they have a new facility.’”

It was a reference to Mecklenburg’s new, $152 million high school-middle school complex that is on track to open with the completion of construction in August.

ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd picked up on a point first raised by Francisco — that the cost of a new building is around $85 million, and the remainder of the Branch Builds-RRMM Architects cost estimate of $118 million for a new school includes other expenses that would apply to a renovation project, too.

“You’re looking at 10 to 15 percent of your total project just to furnish the building,” he said.

Administrators, teachers, school trustees and community stakeholders “have reviewed [the options, new construction or renovation] time and time and time again” — Lloyd estimated 150 meetings have been held on the subject — and “we can set this county up for the next 30 to 50 years” with a decision to build a new HCHS.

Lloyd thanked supervisors for working with the School Board and praised “that spirit of cooperation that I hope we see moving forward” in resolving the future of Halifax County High School.

Ricketts, however, called on fellow supervisors to do their due diligence and set aside what he called “school system propaganda” on the merits of new construction, suggesting that true cost figures for a renovation project at HCHS haven’t been provided to the public.

“Our job as the Board of Supervisors is to investigate the financial implications of any decision,” he said.

That topic — the financial capacity of Halifax County to borrow for school capital projects — was the focus of a presentation by Davenport analysts Ted Cole and Ben Wilson at the start of Thursday night’s meeting. Cole and Wilson, who provide budget and financial expertise to the Board of Supervisors, laid out a set of estimates that, depending on interest rates, would allow Halifax County to borrow up to $142 million without raising taxes or compromising the county’s ability to pay for other future capital needs.

The high-end projection for borrowing relies on two pots of available dollars. The largest is $3.6 million in sales tax revenue that the county is reaping from its 1-cent levy, authorized by voters in 2019. The second pot of money is current school debt payments that will come off the books in fiscal year 2027-28.

Borrowing for new school construction — mostly for HCHS, but with tens of millions left over for elementary school updates — would require “nothing beyond what you’re already budgeting for debt [service] and the sales taxes,” said Cole.

The county makes around $4.7 million in annual debt service payments, a sum that drops to zero in 2028. Cole said the maximum figure that the county should consider using out of that expiring debt service is $2.2 million, which would leave $2.5 million left over to absorb the potential loss of tax revenue if the Clover Power Station closes.

“We believe we’ve been realistic and conservative to some extent in the assumptions we’ve made” on financing, said Cole.

Although supervisors did not make any decisions on the high school Thursday night, Board Chairman Hubert Pannell offered assurances to school trustees that “[we] will get there with you all. It’s just going to take us a little more time to do it.”

William Bryant Claiborne, a member of the joint facilities committee, reminded board members that by law, the penny sales tax must be dedicated to school capital needs, and the latest fiscal projections show that the sales tax revenue, coupled with expiring debt dollars, should be more than enough to pay for a new HCHS.

“We can accomplish a lot of things without citizens worrying about tax increases,” said Claiborne.

Trustees back pay package, despite misgivings

A similar dynamic may not hold for school employee pay, a topic that dominated the latter part of the meeting, with an agenda divided between the Board of Supervisors and School Board.

Despite warnings by Simpson that long-term funding for the compensation package is not in the county’s budget — and that short-term implementation will quickly eat up $3.3 million in budget reserves — trustees voted to go forward with the pay increases, starting in January.

Lacey Shotwell, newly seated as ED-6’s trustee, alluded to the choices that the School Board may be forced to make on school consolidation — “I really don’t want to do that” — but she said the division has no choice but to pay competitive salaries to its employees, or otherwise watch them leave for jobs elsewhere.

“There is no way we can keep running this school system if we do not pay our teachers and our staff,” she said.

Keith McDowell in ED-7 expressed a similar view, adding that any pay plan should also include better wages for bus and car drivers.

“Our employees are going to leave and it’s going to be devastating to our staff,” said McDowell, who urged fellow trustees to take a “leap of faith” and vote yes on both parts of Lineburg’s compensation reform plan — for teachers and for support staff.

That’s what the School Board did, drawing applause from the audience at Thursday’s meeting, mostly comprised of school employees — but the vote came over warnings by Simpson that the money isn’t currently in the budget to carry the compensation package beyond a few years.

“I’m not against this. I want to make this work and I’ve bent over backwards to make this work ,” said Simpson, but he added, “I do not believe that you have the money in your current budget to do that.”

By doubling the expense of the compensation package from $800,000 to $1.6 million to cover not only teachers but also non-instructional staff, Simpson warned that the School Board will have only a short period to identify where long-term financing will come from — be it a tax increase, which is the prerogative of the Board of Supervisors, or elementary school consolidation, a choice the School Board must make.

“I don’t see the numbers working with as large as that [$1.6 million expenditure] is,” said Simpson.

While the Board of Supervisors governs any decision on whether to allow the School Board to use the $3.3 million carryover for salaries — leftover budget funds are typically held in reserve for capital needs — members sounded loath to hold back the money, which would have the effect of stopping the compensation package in its tracks.

“If I could start this yesterday, if I could start it last year, I would have done so,” said Francisco of teacher pay increases. “It is so important to me.”

Stanley Brandon, ED-6 supervisor, said that he, too, believes school pay levels must come up.

“Some of them [school staff] are making barely $15,000 in the year 2021,” said Brandon, describing such salary levels as “quite horrible.”

The next steps for supervisors and trustees are meetings in coming weeks: the Nov. 29 sessions for supervisors who sit on the finance and joint facilities committees, and regular December full board meetings of supervisors and trustees.

Cole, with Davenport, said officials will need to have a plan in place by January for Halifax County to take part in the spring round of school debt financing by the Virginia Public School Authority, the state’s go-to source for school capital borrowing.

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Comments

So, I am not against teacher and support raises. They need it. I cannot imagine working for what teachers get in the first five years in Halifax. What I hear from teachers is this is a great area to raise a family, but they can drive 30 miles in any direction and make much more and maybe get a sign on bonus.. Principals making $75k or more is another subject.
And my problem with a new school with all new furnishings is this. Don’t tell me you are putting something in place to pay for repairs. That should have been done all along. The present middle school is the most sound school in the county. I went there starting in 1971 and I had a very good friend that taught there until 2011. She told me the building was sound before and after renovation. So, it looks like the building is a done deal. But, the Superintendent is just using his stop in Halifax as a line on his resume. He is a young man and has already had a lot of stops.

Comments

So the county has to decide between higher taxes or closing the elementary schools to sustain the pay raise? Maybe we should reevaluate the amount of raises? Or maybe we should say it's a two-year bonus.
A lot of contradictory info in this article because later:
“We can accomplish a lot of things without citizens worrying about tax increases,” said Claiborne.

Comments

What happens if Mecklenburg County gives raises next year? Then we will still be below them and so when does it end? Raises how often to stay competitive? Mecklenburg County has different businesses and job opportunities so they will probably always beat us. Maybe compare to something more similar.
I don't see any mention of this in the article, but what if we don't spend $120 million of a new HS? Could some of the various funds be used to sustain a raise if that's the route chosen...rather than raise taxes.

Comments

Hey folks; let’s not forget, Mecklenburg County has a Microsoft-we don’t. If our IDA could get us a Microsoft or something great like that and our closed minded board would let us grow, we could afford a lot of stuff too. We have been in reverse to long in this county.

Comments

A locality that doesn't invest in education for current and future generations is doomed to failure. For too long the schools have been an issue in recruiting new business and industry to Halifax County. This fact has been discussed by former IDA directors and consultants assisting the County in recruitment for over two decades. Halifax County broke new ground thanks to the efforts of Delegate Edmunds in getting the tax referendum passed to fund school improvements and the monies are being collected daily. NOW is the time to put those funds to use and build a new high school and upgrade the elementary schools (which may include consolidation). It will not ever get any cheaper to borrow money and build than today, costs will only rise the more the leaders delay a decision. The kids and teachers deserve to have state of the art facilities. Economic growth will surely follow, as the saying goes...build it and they will come.

Comments

So you say, build it and they will come. The IDA has built and built and renovated buildings in Sinai and up 58 and they have not come. Microsoft came to Mecklenburg way before contracts were signed on the new middle-high school. GW of Danville has not done anything major to that school since the 1970s. But, yet Danville got a new delivery truck plant in Ringgold, they have broken ground on a new casino and entertainment complex. So, they are getting their tax flow coming in first. We have a lot of empty Ida buildings, a Clover Power Plant that will shutter in 2026, and dozens of empty retail buildings in Halifax and South Boston. Depressing!

Comments

How about someone with our boardwalk to the people doing the Mecklenburg High School complex. They are on time, actually a little ahead and the campus will be ready June 2022. Clevelandconstruction.com is the contractor and they have done some fabulous projects, including Arena Srage in DC,larger projects and smaller projects than we need. They will have the people there and the equipment. And clevelandconstruction has a video showing the Mecklenburg complex, auditoriums, gym, and outdoor athletic fields.


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