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A story heard before / April 04, 2019

Dear Viewpoint:

Here we go again …

Once upon a time, not long ago, Halifax County had a school superintendent named Paul Stapleton, who convinced the Halifax Board of Supervisors, School Board trustees, and the IDA that Halifax County needed to construct new schools and/or refurbish one school in order to attract high tech industry to Halifax County and to improve the level of education provided the school age population. The cost of such refurbishing and construction ended up costing the County of Halifax some $65 million, plus interest, to be repaid at the rate of over $5.3 million per year. Several schools in the county had trouble becoming accredited and one school is still conditionally accredited.

Halifax County is now in the 10th year or more after completion of the new and refurbished schools. Citizens are still awaiting the influx of the new high tech industries promised by Mr. Stapleton, the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and the IDA.

Our new superintendent, Mr. Mark Lineburg, is pushing to build a new high school and stadium. One of the reasons he gave was to help recruit high tech industries to come to Halifax County. To quote Yogi Berra, “Deja vu all over again.” It has always been interesting that history repeats itself over and over, particularly in the field of government. Promises made by one group are unfulfilled and later on repeated and again unfulfilled by the same group. What is most surprising is that many people never learn and continue to accept the same promises, the Lucy/Charlie Brown syndrome.

While reading online comments in one of the local papers on the subject of the controversy regarding the proposed building of a new high school, one comment struck me as an example of this phenomenon. The writer of the comment expressed his (or her) enthusiastic endorsement of the high school project by referring to the remarks by the new school superintendent on how this project would improve opportunities to attract businesses to the area and provide new opportunities to Halifax youths. To quote the great Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Facts are terrible things and some of the facts that seem to escape our elected representatives on both the Board of Supervisors and the School trustees are:

1. Halifax County, like most rural counties in Virginia and the nation, is losing population to urban areas. It was recently reported in both local papers that Halifax and surrounding counties are losing population at an increasing rate.

2. Demographics in Halifax County shows a decreasing school age population and an increasing population over 65 years of age, now at approximately 24% of the county population. Fewer young people mean fewer children and a decreasing need for new schools.

3. Fewer young individuals are opting to live in rural areas. Our former Delegate Ted Bennett in recognizing this phenomenon a number of years ago referred to it as a “Brain Drain.”

4. Neither the Board of Supervisors nor the trustees keep up maintenance on the county and school buildings now. Lynchburg has E. G. Glass High School which was completed in 1953, added to over the years, and still being used. Difference is maintenance being done in Lynchburg versus in Halifax.

5. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville reports that “every Virginia county bordering North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky lost population this decade.”

6. Augie Wallmeyer, author of the book “The Extremes of Virginia,” attributed the population decline in southern Virginia to a multitude of overlapping conditions. These include the decline of the coal, textiles, and agriculture industries leading to financial insecurity. Southside Virginia has struggled ineffectively to provide jobs and economic opportunities especially for young people, leading to that population leaving the area to find work and settle down. Wallmeyer further indicates other reasons being drug problems, lack of higher education, and lack of quality health care.

7. Hamilton Lombard, a demographer who prepared the annual population estimates of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, notes that “Rural counties in Virginia have been slowly losing their young adult population for decades,” and that “often rural counties have been able to continue growing by attracting older migrants who are nearing retirement or have already established their careers elsewhere.”

8. Rural areas are not attractive to young educated individuals since these areas do not offer the cultural opportunities, entertainment, shopping, and restaurants that this group demands.

With a declining population, particularly those adults of child bearing age, and declining number of students in the future, why spend $99 million for fewer and fewer students and not even maintain existing buildings? Just like the $65 million spent by the Board of Supervisors as mentioned above for schools to attract industry to Halifax. What industry? And the county taxpayers are still footing the bill of over $5 million a year to pay for unneeded schools and are facing the increasing costs of renovating the county courthouse.

Halifax County has a shrinking taxpayer base of individuals and loss of industry. Who will be available to pay for all these “improvements.”

A 1% increase in the sales tax will accomplish two undesirable goals. First, the lowest income citizens will suffer the most and secondly, many citizens with the ability to travel outside the county of Halifax will purchase even more items outside of the county. Or they will purchase items online, thus bypassing the 1% sales tax that is allocated to the county,

In the past, the Board of Supervisors and the South Boston Town Council have approved expenditures of tens of millions of dollars for projects intended to bring industry to the county through the IDA. These funds would have been much better spent on infrastructure such as roads and school instead of being wasted on “pie in the sky” projects which, for the most part never materialized. A trained workforce is one of the bases of industrial development. Industry, especially high tech industry, requires an educated work force. In the last census, Halifax county had 2.7% of the adult population as having an educational degree higher than a Bachelors Degree while the State of Virginia overall had a rate over three times larger. If education is the basic building block of industrial development, then why can’t the Tobacco Commission assist counties in developing a basic block of educated citizens?

The 1% increase in the local sales tax requested by the Delegate representing Halifax County and the various agencies of the county, will cover only the construction of the new building, no pay increases for teachers, operating expenses or maintenance. (All figures are approximate). The total cost of a new school at $100,000,000 over the life of the loan (30 years) is $195,000,000 or $6,500,000 a year. The 1% increase in the sales tax is estimated to yield (at the best) $3,400,000 leaving a deficit of 3,100,000. A 1 cent increase in real estate taxes yields $368,000 meaning an increase in the real estate tax of 8-9 cents per hundred to cover the remaining cost of the payout every year for 30 years.

In conclusion, although it is obvious that the county of Halifax is going to have to replace the existing facility, as it is not usable, the members of both the Board of Supervisors and the School Board must not make the same errors as were made in the erection of the existing building. As the above indicates, Halifax County is unlikely to require a facility with even one-half of the capacity of the existing facility.

The proposal by Supervisor Davis seems to be a doable and affordable solution, particularity with the forecasted decline in the school student population. Mrs. Kathy Fraley is correct in agreeing with Mr. Davis and Mr. Gasparini is not. The Board of Supervisors has the last word in this situation, not the School Board.

Fraley is also correct in the statement regarding the new high school, “We don’t have the plans, we don’t have the money, we only have a dream.” The facts above show that we don’t need or can afford to spend $60,000,000 much less $90,000,000 on this school. And may I add that the proposed increase in the sales tax will likely not provide the funds needed to cover a sufficient portion of the cost $90,000,000 and the citizens of Halifax County cannot afford to pay for this school.

Barry Bank
South Boston

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