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All quiet down the homestretch

SoVaNow.com / September 20, 2017
The powers-that-be who’ll determine the future of Mecklenburg County school facilities must be taking lessons from Congress: they’re brushing up against must-pass deadlines with what looks from afar to be nary a care in the world. Except this time, it’s not a demand to raise the debt limit or stave off a government shutdown that has everyone scratching their heads over what comes next. Instead, it’s the Board of Supervisors’ insistence that a site be chosen for a countywide middle school/high school complex by Oct. 2, a key deadline for borrowing money so the new school can actually get built.

According to the official narrative, Mecklenburg has less than two weeks to apply for the state’s upcoming round of low-interest school construction bonds. Failure to make that deadline, so the story goes, will set back progress on replacing the four Bluestone and Park View buildings by several years, at a minimum. Last week, the Board of Supervisors agreed to put in a request for $50 million in bond financing, but supervisors have said they will use these borrowed funds to pay for elementary school facility needs if an agreement hasn’t been reached by Oct. 2 on a location for the new school complex. The choice of a site will be made jointly (or not at all) by the Board of Supervisors and School Board. Neither board is saying much at the moment about where the matter stands.

This is all very curious. You’d think with a drop-dead date hanging over everyone’s heads, we’d be seeing members of both boards jockeying for position and beating their chests over the best way forward. Instead, silence. Meanwhile, an engineering firm hired by the county to recommend a school site was summoned to Boydton last week to present its findings, but that discussion was held in closed session and we haven’t heard what the consultants advised, nor what county officials are thinking. All that can be said with reasonable confidence is that the complex will be built somewhere near Boydton, a revelation that will be greeted with cries of “duh” across the land.

So what’s going on here? Just guessing, but it stands to reason that we’re coming to the end of a grand debate over how far to go to accommodate South Hill’s wish that the new high school and middle school be built as close as possible to town. (This grand debate could end in impasse.) It’s worth keeping in mind that there are three basic camps on the matter of the new school: (1) those who detest the idea of consolidation, and want Mecklenburg to keep its east-west facilities (at considerable expense); (2) those who are all gung-ho on the idea of a single school complex for grades 6-12, and (3) those willing to go along with consolidation as long as the new school leans in the direction of South Hill. With the Board of Supervisors united behind a single school, this dynamic is playing out almost entirely among members of the School Board. But since the trustees have veto power over the final decision, their voices — and votes — matter.

The reason we’ve gotten this far is because a swing faction on the School Board has swung in favor of consolidation. They can unswing at any time. The deciding votes for the prevailing site could come from Rob Campbell, Brent Richey or Lindell Palmer — only Gavin Honeycutt and Wanda Bailey can be realistically ruled out, while Glenn Edwards, Dora Garner, Kenneth Johnson and Dale Sturdifen are consistently pro-consolidation — but anyone who believes that fence-sitting trustees will simply buckle under the weight of public opinion should think about that assumption long and hard. If the question becomes whether to build the school a mile east of Boydton, or five miles east of Boydton, it’s not terribly unreasonable to think that Rob Campbell, say, might hold out for the five-mile option, since that put the school in his district and this has been his position all along.

Variables like these — there are plenty of others — will decide where the new school goes. For starters, what sites are actually available? Do they lie in sight of Route 92 running between Boydton and Chase City, or Route 4 leading out to the dam? Dunno. A major reason for building the school close to the Town of Boydton is the limited range of sewer lines extending outward from town. Going further east would entail a substantial investment in infrastructure to serve the site. Yet there’s also a good argument to be made that a Boydton-to-South Hill sewage line should be laid anyway, if only to open up a major swatch of the county for commercial and industrial development.

For related reasons, it’s understandable that county officials would be reluctant to hand over the seemingly obvious site for the new school — the razed MCC prison property — since that property could be very attractive to business prospects. With considerable resources already in place to keep the Microsoft facility humming, it’s easy to imagine Mecklenburg being in uniquely good position to land another big cloud computing operation at the prison site, or any other industry for that matter.

So the bottom line is that we don’t really know what’s going on, and those who might know aren’t talking. I’ll take that as good sign. From the beginning, there have been a hundred and one reasons why the push to build a new school for the secondary grades could fail, and only one reason why it should not: the desperate need to do better by rising generations of Mecklenburg County students and their families. The status quo is a disgrace, the future is fraught with uncertainty and doubt. I get that. But the path forward was always going to require compromises on all sides, and it’s a measure of how far the county has traveled that a final agreement could hinge on a distance of four or five miles. Compromise by definition takes place when all parties walk away from a deal not entirely happy. If we walk away from building a new school, no one will be happy. Nor should they be.

***

Lucky Brunswick County: residents there get to keep their Anthem health plans on the individual market exchange, a.k.a. Obamacare. Last week, Anthem partially reversed its earlier decision to withdraw entirely from Virginia’s individual health insurance market, with the company announcing that it would sell coverage in 68 localities, including our neighboring county to the east. Brunswick was among 58 communities that up until that point had no Obamacare providers. With Anthem’s decision, residents of every county and city in Virginia have at least one option to choose from when purchasing individual health coverage.

Mecklenburg County, meanwhile, is losing Anthem but gaining Optima, which earlier announced that it would extend its reach in markets where Sentara has hospitals and physician practices. (Optima is a subsidiary of Norfolk-based Sentara, which of course owns the South Boston hospital and related facilities.) I’m an Anthem customer and in all likelihood will be switching to Optima next year. I don’t have any particular love for Anthem, but changing plans is a hassle and I’d rather not have to do it. That said, Optima has a good reputation and robust provider network, so I consider myself — and others — lucky to have a decent option going forward.

If you’re wondering why health insurance has suddenly become more complicated and a pain-in-the-rear than it already was, there’s a simple answer: Republicans in Washington are doing everything in their power to undermine Obamacare, and these are the results. It’s time to stop beating around the bush on this point. Major insurers have no incentive to blame the Trump Administration and Congress for undermining the law, but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from recognizing the deliberate sabotage of the Affordable Care Act. So whenever Frank Ruff or some other party mouthpiece blames “imploding” Obamacare for the current set of problems, I’d appreciate it if someone other than me would tell them to stuff it. Obamacare markets were stabilizing more or less according to plan until right-wing vandals started whacking away at the law.

Does Obamacare need improvement? Of course it does. For starters, rural areas such as our own would greatly benefit from having more than one or two providers on the Healthcare.gov exchange. In the old days, back when private utilities refused to extend electric lines to the countryside, the federal government created rural electric cooperatives, which is why we have Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative today. A similar model could be employed to make sure that rural customers have decent options for health insurance. (This is a lot of what the Democratic-backed “public option” was all about.) Meantime, Senate Republicans have apparently raised their Obamacare repeal-and-replace efforts from the dead: a bill co-sponsored by Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham may come up for a vote by Sept. 30. That’s the last day that Congress can pass an Obamacare replacement on a straight-up partisan vote (avoiding a Democratic filibuster in the Senate), which gives Congress less than two weeks to reshape one-sixth of the nation’s economy. All hail the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body in action ….

What’ll be interesting to see is whether Republicans actually have the guts to take ownership of the nation’s health care system. Up till now, they’ve capitalized on the ability to blame everything on the Democratic-enacted law, ignoring huge gains in coverage for millions of Americans under Obamacare, along with much-needed reforms such as the ban on discrimination for pre-existing conditions. The Cassidy-Graham legislation is every bit as atrocious as the other GOP repeal-and-replace bills that have come before it, and if the party succeeds this time millions will lose their coverage — many immediately — and most others will end up paying more for health insurance. Does Republicans have the courage of their convictions necessary to inflict such hardship on voters? In the next few days, we stand to find out.



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