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Halifax County supes agree to hire architect for ‘second opinion’ on HCHS project

SoVaNow.com / March 05, 2019
Saying they want a second opinion, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors agreed Monday to hire an architectural firm to review options for upgrading Halifax County High School ahead of a likely voter referendum on the high school’s future.

Board members expressed unease with the two options set forth by the School Board’s architectural firm, Moseley Architects, for either an $88 million top-to-bottom renovation of the existing building or a new $99 million high school. Supervisors argued that an independent review of those recommendations — even one that upholds Moseley’s work — is needed to convince county voters to support the high school referendum.

“It’s hard for this board not to think we need a second opinion,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Dennis Witt. “I’m just concerned about getting citizen support …. We don’t want to take something to the public that won’t succeed.”

On a motion by ED-2 supervisor Jeff Francisco, the board agreed to spend up to $125,000 to hire an architectural firm to review the study by Moseley Architects and present its own findings. The School Board initially contracted with Moseley for $170,000; with additional work, including a soil analysis of the HCHS site, the cost of the study later rose to around $270,000.

Of the $125,00 allocated for a new review, “I think that’s pennies on the dollar when you’re considering $100 million [for a new facility],” said ED-6 supervisor Stanley Brandon.

The board action comes after local officials pressed the General Assembly for legislation authorizing Halifax County to hold a voter referendum in November on a local sales tax. The 1-cent tax, which would be imposed on top of the state’s 5.3 cent retail sales tax, is projected to generate about $3.5 million in annual revenue that could be used to finance borrowing for a new school facility. School officials have estimated the debt service on a $100 million school would be about $5.5 million annually.

If approved by county voters, the local sales tax would not apply to items such as groceries, drug prescriptions and automobile sales that exempt from the state tax. The local tax also would sunset after the high school project is paid for.

The timetable for adding a sales tax referendum to the November ballot leaves supervisors with little time for a prolonged architectural study: the county would have to file by August in order to have the ballot initiative decided in the fall general election.

At their monthly meeting in Halifax on Monday night, supervisors grilled Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg on the scope of Moseley’s work and the estimated project costs, drawing attention to the relatively small difference between the $88 million renovation plan and the $99 million full rebuild.

“That would tell you automatically that you should build [a new school], but why are the numbers so high?” said ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis.

Davis, who has proposed combining the high school and middle school and adopting a year-round school calendar to avoid building a new high school, noted that even if voters approve the sales tax referendum, Halifax County will still need to raise property taxes to cover the full cost of debt service on a new facility. Davis estimated the county’s real estate tax rate, now 48 cents per $100 in value, would have to rise by 11 cents.

He also questioned the need for an expensive high school with student enrollment declining steadily in Halifax County.

“I’m looking at other options and I hope you guys are looking at other options, too,” said Davis, adding that he would be satisfied with a plan for an “adequate” high school.

“Is it really $100 million, and what are we going to end up with at the end of the day?” he said.

In response, Lineburg noted that the true costs of a new high school won’t be known until the School Board obtains construction bids through a design-build procurement process that trustees are expected to approve this month. He also said the School Board and the administration will be “sharpening our pencils” to eliminate any unnecessary expense to taxpayers: “Every single day we are working to drive those numbers down.”

Separately, Lineburg and school finance director Robert Aylor asked supervisors to approve an application to the Virginia Literary Fund to designate Halifax County as pre-approved for state loans to renovate or build a new HCHS. The Literary Fund, the state’s borrowing pool for school capital projects, could provide loans at a below-market rate of 2 percent for the HCHS project. Lineburg and Aylor emphasized that Halifax County is not committing to a specific project by applying to the Literary Fund, but rather would get in line for future lending. The loan amount would be capped at $7.5 million, said Aylor.

Board members approved the Literary Fund application along with their motion to hire an independent architect.

Responding to members’ skepticism about the Moseley estimates — “I’ve never taken Moseley at more than it is, a good guess,” said Witt — Lineburg outlined what he described as a four-legged stool for shouldering the cost of a new high school.

The first two legs are the proposed local sales tax and “traditional” property tax revenues, he said, along with two areas where the School Board can alleviate the strain on taxpayers: public-private partnerships to generate outside revenue, and savings in the operating budget that would come with forgoing the outdated HCHS facility, which first opened in 1979 and has become more expensive to operate over time.

Lineburg said operational savings could amount to 5-7 percent of the School Board budget, roughly $58 million a year. With that, along with aggressive action to secure partners for the new high school, “maybe [the school] can be something we can be proud of, if we can get these four legs together,” he said.

In response to Davis’ comment that he would be satisfied with an “adequate” replacement for HCHS, fellow supervisor William Bryant Claiborne suggested that supervisors should think about how their choices in the present day will stand up with the passage of time.

Noting that Moseley Architects is a “very reputable” firm with long experience designing high schools in Virginia, Claiborne said future generations will look at the board's actions on a high school and perhaps “ask why didn’t we do what was in the best long-term interests of the county.”

He also reminded supervisors that the costs of the Courthouse Renovation Project rose in part because of delays in the project planning.

Of the board’s decision to commission its own architect, “this is not about usurping the School Board at all,” said Witt. A second opinion could strengthen the case for a new high school and provide voters with a “clear picture” before heading to the ballot box. “The sales tax [referendum] is a huge step” towards paying for a high school upgrade, “but we’re not there yet,” Witt said.

Lineburg said it was essential to have a specific plan for the school for voters to consider in November and urged supervisors to coalesce around a “vision of what the product is. If you don’t have a vision, what are we voting for?”

With the effort that Halifax County put into getting a local option sales tax through the General Assembly, the present moment “is the best chance we’re ever going to have to address the high school,” he said.



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Comments

So AFTER the School Board has voted to build a new school and paid an architectural firm $270,000 for the study, the Board of Supervisors decide to hire a SECOND architectural firm to review work done to offer a second opinion at a cost of $125,000?!? That's a grand total of $395,000 combined to look at the current building. It amounts to about a penny on current real estate taxes to fund these studies. A school age child can tell you the high school is in dire shape, decay, and poorly maintained to the point of needing replacement. The BOS has shown their ineptness in the Courthouse project which has overrun all costs estimates, so they certainly cannot offer any expertise on this matter. All this does is show the dissension among our elected officials and is costing the taxpayers due to the ego of individuals who want to be in control.

Comments

It's reassuring to hear an elected council member say he'd be satisfied with something that is "adequate" for our children and future children. Long live Halifax and their unique way of thinking.

Comments

I'll design a new high school and I'll only charge you $100,000

Comments

we should be talking about moving both the HS and MIddle School to perhaps the fairground location where the land can support increased athletic fields and be a possible site for soccer tournaments and other sport tournaments. Instead we are stuck on stupid again. THe space at HS and MS locations is not adequate for what should be done properly. Plus the 100 million could be spent to use county land-fairgrounds and build 2 schools.why is this county stuck in the existing spot?? The architect fees could have been used to provide upkeep for the schools. Funny how the BOS finds that much cash but can't pay for paint and ceiling tiles.

Comments

I agree two studies is crazy but I am glad to see that the BOS thinks those numbers are way to high. I will also agree that the school needs some work. It has wings A, B, C determine which wing is in need of the most repair and go from there. 5-10 million a wing would be more than enough. As for the new sports fields, what money does that really make us? The fields are fine the way they are. We don't need a new stadium for high school sports.


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