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Halifax County supes take seat in panel discussion of high school

SoVaNow.com / September 30, 2021
Members of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and School Board sat down Tuesday for a meeting to develop a consensus on the high school.

In doing so, participants in the discussion waded into a deep pool of dollar estimates that, depending on the point of view, either suggest the county can afford a new HCHS facility or it needs to look elsewhere for answers.

The meeting of the Joint Facilities Committee, comprised of three supervisors and three trustees, produced no conclusions. But members did have an opportunity to ask questions about a complex set of financial projections that will color whatever decisions the two boards make.

Laying out the numbers were County Administrator Scott Simpson and Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg. Lineburg’s plan to tackle three big-ticket items at once — the high school, school employee compensation and elementary school consolidation — was the foundation for the discussion, but Simpson brought his own numbers to the table to flesh out options for the Board of Supervisors, which has no formal decision-making authority over the schools but holds the local education purse strings.

“Right now it looks like all of this is merging potentially into one project that takes care of everything, in ways that one helps pay for the other,” said Simpson. “I think ultimately it really boils down to the role of the Board of Supervisors in this whole scenario.”

Lineburg added that the customary decision-making process — the School Board sets the direction for Halifax County Public Schools, then asks the Board of Supervisors to come up with the funding — is “not fair” to the latter board, and he voiced a desire to bring the two governing bodies together around a comprehensive plan to guide the future of Halifax County Public Schools.

“We respect and value your opinion,” Lineburg said.

That remark was directed at Ricky Short and Dean Throckmorton, ED-1 and ED-5 supervisors and members of the joint committee who took part in Tuesday’s meeting. A third supervisor serving on the facilities panel, William Bryant Claiborne, was absent.

The roughly 90-minute panel discussion was loaded up with numbers, touching on questions ranging from the choice of building methods — the primary options are traditional design-build construction or a PPEA private-public partnership agreement — to the various ways that dollars can be stretched with long-term financing. Simpson produced a summary of school funding scenarios by Davenport Public Finance, the county’s financial advisory firm, that took up more than two dozen chart-laden pages.

Throckmorton, who expressed skepticism that a new high school should cost $118 million — the latest estimate — at one point sounded an exasperated note on the numbers being bandied about during the meeting. “When you look at 36 million and 41 million and 61 million and all of a sudden it’s 118 [million] or whatever it is, that’s a lot of money,” he said.

The School Board panel members — Roy Keith Lloyd, Sandra Garner-Coleman and Jay Camp — focused, to varying degrees, on the educational importance of getting the question right.

Camp, who voted in the minority when the School Board formally recommended construction of a new high school, said that since that vote, he has learned several things that have influenced his thinking on a new high school.

In particular, he pointed to the experience in neighboring Mecklenburg, where construction is under way on a $154 million high school-middle school complex. Mecklenburg has placed a heavy emphasis on career and technical education — part of Mecklenburg County school superintendent Paul Nichols’ focus on providing a 21st century education — and Halifax should do the same with its high school, Camp suggested.

“21st century learning is not the way all of us learned, in a great big square box,” he said.

Lloyd said the delay in decision-making brought on by the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for the School Board and Board of Supervisors, giving both boards time to think about not only the high school, but related issues such as teacher pay and the elementary school footprint.

“We have an opportunity to give this county a gift for the next 30 to 50 years,” said Lloyd. “We need to get it right.”

If the two boards had acted soon after passage of the 2019 sales tax referendum, Lloyd suggested, it’s likely that the other major priorities never would have come up.

He reminded supervisors that at one time, there was talk of having to raise the real estate tax by 12 cents to fix the chronic problem of lagging teacher salaries, and Lineburg has since developed a plan to dramatically boost pay scales with a much lower 2-cent property tax hike.

That plan, however, relies on capturing savings over time from closing up to three elementary schools in the northern part of the county. Simpson produced estimates suggesting that the closure of Clays Mill, Meadville and Sinai elementaries, and reassigning students there to other schools, would save more than $70 million over a 30-year period.

Lloyd called that a “conservative number” and asked, “Will that 70 million come from a tax increase that none of us wants to have, or will 70 million come from a difficult decision on some of these elementary schools?”

He admitted he isn’t looking forward to the emotional debates to come on whether to shutter elementary schools, which will kick off with a series of community meetings in October at the five oldest elementary schools in Halifax County: Clays Mill, Meadville, Sinai, Scottsburg and Sydnor Jennings. Lineburg has proposed expanding and renovating Scottsburg and Sydnor Jennings to help those schools absorb the student populations from the other three schools that would close.

Garner-Coleman suggested, however, putting off the committee discussion on elementary schools until later. “I think we need to have our community meetings before we toss that around,” she said.

On the subject of a new HCHS facility, members of the panel, prodded by Simpson, sought to clarify exactly how much a replacement for the dilapidated building would cost, and how the county can afford the tab.

The $118 million estimate provided by the School Board’s current PPEA partners, Branch Builds and RRRMM Architects, is somewhat misleading, committee members suggested, because it covers more than simply building costs. The construction price — without so-called “soft costs” factored in — is millions less, putting the square-foot construction expense on par with schools that have been built or are under construction elsewhere.

Those soft costs, which are generally excluded in the price figures cited for other schools, cover non-construction expenditures such as professional services and the purchase of new fixtures and furnishings. Simpson noted that the latter item is the single largest soft cost in the Branch Builds-RRMM Architects high school proposal, adding up to some $6 million.

“That $118 million dollars” — Branch Build’s bottom-line project cost — “is pretty close to all encompassing,” Simpson said. Lloyd chimed in: “We’ve probably done a poor job of advertising that it is all-inclusive.”

At $118 million, Halifax County would realistically be able to cover the full debt service on a new high school without a tax increase, by relying on two pots of money — sales tax revenue and expiring debt service. Some $2.2 million in annual debt payments that are set to come off the books in 2028 could be repurposed to pay for a high school facility.

Davenport, the county’s financial consulting firm, has developed a set of estimates for how much the county can expect to reap over 30 years from the 1-cent local sales tax. Estimates vary depending on whether inflation is factored. With no rise in the future cost of consumer goods, the county would face a no-growth scenario for its sales tax revenue. Using that as a yardstick, Halifax could borrow some $94 million today to build school facilities.

If 1.8 percent annual growth is plugged into the sales tax revenue — an inflation figure in line with the historical average of the consumer price index — then Halifax would have the capacity to borrow up to $109 million for school capital needs, Davenport found.

By carefully structuring the 30-year repayment schedule on school debt, Halifax County would have the capacity to borrow up to $123 million, a sum, Simpson said, that could cover the cost of a new HCHS.

“It’s achievable without new revenues or a tax increase, provided the revenues come in as they have been,” said Simpson.

That still leaves the question of whether Halifax County would be able to keep money in reserve to handle other capital needs — with elementary school upgrades on the list.

Lineburg said that with six elementary schools that were built in the 1960s, each with declining enrollments, “that’s the next discussion you’ve got to have.”

His plan for consolidating the county’s elementary school population at four schools — Cluster Springs and South Boston, the newest buildings in the fleet, and Scottsburg and Sydnor Jennings in northern Halifax County — would require making facility upgrades to the latter two buildings. Architects have suggested those upgrades would cost around $38.5 million.

The 30-year operational savings would be roughly double that number.

“Unfortunately, we can’t all have it both ways,” said Simpson. “You can’t have all our schools be open and be the most efficient.

“You’ve got to make a conscious decision on [whether] we want to be efficient and close schools and utilize those savings for other needs that the school system has, or is the public fine with keeping these schools. And there are other needs that the school system has — what do you do about it.”

Simpson said his role in the process is “not to make that decision” — a job for the Board of Supervisors — but “to make sure that 10, 15, 25 years from now, what decisions we make today, we can afford.”

The county administrator also weighed in on a question that took up a good part of Tuesday’s committee session — which construction method the School Board should favor, in the choice between design-build projects that are put out for bid, and PPEA agreements that are negotiated in advance.

Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, Simpson said, explaining that the chief benefit of PPEA projects is cost certainty. Contractors and architects agree to lock in on a price which they cannot go over, but may not be the lowest possible price.

The Board of Supervisors opted for a design-build approach to the courthouse renovations, only to see that construction projects hit snags that required a series of change orders to rectify.

That wouldn’t have happened under a fixed-price PPEA agreement, Simpson said, but on the other hand, the upfront price for the work could have been higher.

“That’s just a risk you take in building [projects],” he said.

Offering his own take on the question, Lineburg said he isn’t wedded to any particular approach and encouraged the committee to make its own decisions.

“I do not care if you go with a PPEA, if you go design-build,” said Lineburg. “My obligation is to the children [in HCPS]. I do not feel any obligation to any vendor whatsoever, and neither should you.”

But Garner-Coleman said she would be reluctant to change course after the School Board has worked closely with Branch Builds and RRMM to develop a preliminary design and cost estimates for a new high school.

“We’re taking a gamble if we abandon our PPEA and the design-build [cost] comes in more than what we have now,” she said. Garner-Coleman added, “Every time we push it back, that inflation cost is pushing up the cost of that building by about five percent.”

The joint facilities committee is expected to meet again after a round of community meetings in October to discuss the future of Halifax County’s five oldest elementary schools. The meetings will be held at Clays Mill, Meadville, Sinai, Scottsburg and Sydnor Jennings.

Elementary meetings set

The Halifax County School Board will be having public hearings for possible elementary school consolidation during the month of October. The meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. Masks will be required, and social distancing will be adhered to as much as possible.

Meeting schedule

Tuesday, Oct. 5 – Sydnor Jennings Elementary School
Tuesday, Oct. 12 – Sinai Elementary
Tuesday, Oct. 19 – Clays Mill Elementary School
Thursday, Oct. 21 – Scottsburg Elementary
Thursday, Oct. 28 – Meadville Elementary

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Comments

Just build the dang school and get it over with. Everyone here knows that's what these people are going to gripe about till it gets done. Not one on the SB or BoS wild be happy with"improvements", they would definitely gripe about that the whole way through. We all know no dollar amount will be selected other than the highest, with the most amount of change orders possible, that's just the way y'all like to operate here. Tying teacher pay into that "package" seems a little fishy, but by all means if someone can make money off our tax dollars, I guess I'm all for it. At least someone is. This county has been a dead fish for years, maybe a fancy new school will help the kids care, bring new jobs, or solar panels at least.

Comments

So ten years from now in the year 2032……Halifax has a new $125 million new luxury high school and the County has built a few more Industrial buildings that are all empty and we have major sewer or water problems and we can not pay for all this….well not only will the tax rate maybe double and the car decals cost maybe $250 each, yes I know the sky is falling…..The current Superintendent will be long gone in Virginia Beach, Hampton, Norfolk, Newport News, areas that are flush with money….imagine the schools he can build there.

Comments

WE DO NOT NEED A NEW HIGH SCHOOL! The building needs some improvements, but it has a large area for CTE, the school board members need to remember that they are public servants SERVANTS! the type of building should not really matter, that is just a crutch to justify poor student performance.

Comments

Lloyd is not very intelligent, but he’s right about one thing. They’re trying to give Halifax County a BUG gift. Higher taxes for the next 30 to 50 years. I predict if this travesty passes, the population will get a lot smaller, very fast. These dopes are experts of nothing, but think they know everything. This will saddle the next generation with higher taxes and a lower standard of living.


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