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Bringing it home

SoVaNow.com / November 18, 2021
If the stars align and the planets don’t tumble into the sun, Halifax County could have a decision tonight on building a new high school for future generations of students.

What seemed like an iffy, if not far-fetched, outcome a few months ago has become increasingly plausible in recent weeks. It seemed for a time that Halifax County might never reach the end of its long-running debate over the high school, specifically whether to build a new facility or repair or renovate the existing one. An actual decision seemed to defy the weight of multiple studies, endless meetings, even the 2019 decision by voters to overwhelmingly support the county’s 1-cent sales tax to pay for school facility improvements, with a “modernized” high school uppermost on the list. Every avenue since then has seemed to lead to Paralysis Boulevard, by way of Byzantine Street.

Tonight at 6:30 at the high school auditorium, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and School Board will meet in joint session to see what the collective memberships can do about that.

If (fingers crossed) the two boards do vote to build a new high school — as all the relevant facts and knowledgeable opinion from builders and architects point to as the correct call — then surely we’ll be able to look back at a somewhat dry and low-key meeting in Halifax last week as a key turning point among several.

The joint education committee of the Board of Supervisors and School Board convened on Nov. 11 to receive updated projections from Davenport Public Finance, the firm that steers clients through thickets of financial data, and hear from the two in-house administrators who have worked very effectively to clarify the choices that Halifax County has ahead for its public school division.

The Davenport presentation clearly showed how Halifax will derive enough revenue from the 1-cent sales tax to pay for a new high school facility, leaving millions to spare for elementary school improvements if (that word again) the Board of Supervisors commits existing dollars for school debt service to the future school facility upgrades. Around 2028, the county will have paid off its debt in full from the last round of school projects (construction of Cluster Springs and South Boston elementary schools, and renovation of Halifax County Middle School), freeing up some $4.7 million in the budget. Even after setting aside money to offset the expected loss of tax revenue with the eventual closing of the Clover Power Station, the county could comfortably commit around $2 million annually to pay for elementary school improvements, after a new HCHS building has been constructed.

There is no reason not to do this. Redirecting today’s debt service dollars for future school needs has zero impact on tax rates, and the combination of sales tax revenue and debt service dollars would leave Halifax County with around $140 million to spend on school facilities. Speaking during last week’s joint education committee session, County Administrator Scott Simpson suggested a rough split of $110 million for a new high school, and $30 million for elementaries, which sounds about right. That pot of money could be supplemented further by various budget moves, one more important than all the rest (more on this point in a minute ...).

The two boards never would have gotten this far without the yeoman’s work of Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg, who put forth a comprehensive plan to address school facilities needs, at both the elementary and secondary levels, while tackling the other big priority of the School Board, paying competitive salaries to Halifax County Public Schools employees. Lineburg’s excellent efforts notwithstanding, last Wednesday’s joint education panel meeting was truly Simpson’s time to shine.

The county administrator did a masterful job of laying out feasible options for the high school and elementary schools, evincing a mindset that was expansive and hard-nosed in equal measure. Notably, Simpson’s framework (buttressed by Davenport’s fiscal projections) for moving forward with a new high school did two big things — it took new taxes off the table, and it set an acceptable course for the hardest call that the School Board must eventually make, on school consolidation (that big budget maneuver mentioned earlier).

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get to it:

» Lineburg, in his proposal to slay the three-headed hydra of Halifax County Public Schools — a substandard high school facility, inefficient elementary school footprint, and low teacher pay — essentially bundled the latter two issues together, proposing that the long-term expense of salary reform could be supported by the savings from elementary school closings. Essentially, the high school is a separate question under Lineburg’s framework.

» Along with reduced costs from fewer elementary schools, Lineburg’s plan relies on two other actions — modest cuts in school payroll (through elimination of 10 positions through attrition and early retirement incentives) combined with a 2-cent property tax increase. Lineburg’s plan called for mid-year implementation of teacher and school staff pay hikes, starting in January.

» Our school superintendent, working off data by Branch Builds, the school division’s possible choice of a building contractor, suggested that HCPS should consolidate elementary schools in the northern part of Halifax County — leaving either six, five, or four elementaries moving forward. Optimal savings, around $2.5 million annually, would be achieved by closing Clays Mill, Meadville and Sinai and leaving Cluster Springs, Scottsburg, South Boston and Sydnor Jennings in operation. A likely alternative is a new school at Meadville, with Sinai and Clays Mill shuttered.

» In his reworked version of Lineburg’s original plan, Simpson inserted three big changes. First, no tax increase. Second, the School Board can go ahead with salary scale reforms using a pot of available money that Lineburg had envisioned using for the new high school — roughly $3 million in budget carryover funds from last year, when expenditures came in below estimates with schools closed most of the year. The HCPS competitive pay plan will cost around $800,000 annually. Those carryover funds will cover the first three years’ expense.

Crucially — and this is the third big deviation from Lineburg’s original design — that first three years of pre-funded salary increases gives the School Board time to decide which elementary schools, if any, must close. From the standpoint of keeping the county’s real estate tax as is, the School Board and Board of Supervisors have little choice but to wring some savings out of elementary school operations. The financial downsides of operating multiple small schools with well under 200 students each have been understood for a long, long time — a 2011 school efficiency study by Prismatic Inc. called on Halifax County Public Schools to shutter two elementary facilities, and that was before the county experienced a decade of population loss. Greatly to their credit, Lineburg and members of the School Board have taken up a challenge that has languished for more than a decade.

Now with the input of our county administrator, the School Board and Board of Supervisors can sidestep the question of which schools should close for three more years. It’ll give everyone time to figure out the best course available (and who knows, maybe money will fall from the sky any day now.) Our leadership has a big enough question to tackle with the high school. Spacing out the decision-making process for a few more years can’t hurt.

Which leads us back to the future of Halifax County High School. In all the conversations we’ve had as a community — about the value of school facilities in general, the merits of elementary school consolidation, the importance of paying competitive school salaries — the fact of the matter remains that our current high school facility woefully disserves students, educators, families and all others with a stake in the future of Halifax County. Is a newly constructed HCHS facility the magic elixir that cures all ills? Of course not. But it is a little confounding to listen to all those who speak up in defense of their small elementary schools (justifiably so) but ignore the third-rate condition of our high school. It would be like Starfleet Command rolling out a new class of battle cruisers with a garbage scow leading the fleet as the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The idea that county citizens didn’t understand all of this two years ago when they voted 2-1 to pass the sales tax has always struck me as more than a little strained. We now know that this sales tax revenue will be enough to pay for a replacement HCHS facility without sacrificing the county’s ability to meet other needs, including with its elementary schools. Tonight, supervisors and school trustees will convene at the HCHS auditorium to make a decision, with these long-debated and freshly vetted facts in hand. It’s time to bring this chapter of Halifax County history to a close.



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