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Busy fingers

SoVaNow.com / November 15, 2018
You know how you’ll be watching a movie or cartoon or whatever and there’s that scene where the doughty hero has to plug a widening leak? The plot is always the same: stop the gusher or meet your maker. We’ve seen it happen to Captain Jack Sparrow. And a seafaring Bugs Bunny. Heck, this is a story that goes all the way back to the little Dutch boy with his fingers in a dike. So why not Halifax County supervisor J.T. Davis?

Davis floated an idea this week for plugging a nine-figure hole in the county’s finances as Halifax wrestles with the problem of our wretched high school facility, which is expected to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million to replace. Davis has stuck five, maybe all ten fingers in it: he is proposing to scrap Halifax County High School altogether, shoehorn students in grades 7-12 into the current middle school building, send the sixth graders back to the elementary schools and institute a year-round attendance calendar with staggered schedules for different grades to use the building at different times in order to make the whole thing work. Those are some mighty busy digits in motion.

Of course, we all know how the scene in the movie goes: as soon as our hero plugs one hole, more cracks start to open. And so real life imitates fiction: Davis’ plan hadn’t left port before people started pointing out enough flaws to send his ship plummeting towards Davey Jones’ locker. There are obvious problems with Davis’s proposal, even the parts that (arguably) make the most sense. For example, lots of parents probably would welcome the idea of keeping sixth graders at their neighborhood elementary school for another year, and a K-6 configuration could justify the continued existence of low-enrollment rural schools like Clays Mill or Sydnor Jennings (the latter of which, not coincidentally, lies in Davis’ district.) But while reshuffling the elementary grades might be enough to save those two schools, or Meadville or Sinai, it’s hard to see how such a plan could possibly work at South Boston and Cluster Springs, where the much larger student populations have the buildings bursting at the seams. That’s the problem with all such clever plans: fix the trickle in the countryside, break the dam where most of the county lives.

But let’s give Davis his due. He has come up with an actual idea, one that deserves serious consideration. My idea, in contrast, is that we as a community basically need to be prepared to spend a whole lotta money over the next several decades to fix a major problem that has been festering for years, but I can see where my idea might leave a robust market for alternatives. I mean, when standard operating procedure has been to plug holes here and there at the very last moment of their awakening, why not just keep it up, amirite? To be fair, one hundred million dollars is a serious disincentive for improved behavior.

Who knows: we might get lucky, and Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg could be correct that we stand a strong chance of gaining help from the state to construct a new high school. (We should never forget that the existing HCHS facility might never have been built without a last-minute, out-of-nowhere $5 million grant from the federal government. Back in the days when $5 million was real money.) If a few things break our way in Richmond, Halifax County could get an infusion of state aid to rebuild HCHS, or at least the ability to spread the burden around by imposing a local option sales tax — a penny, say, on top of the state levy of 5.3 cents. A local sales tax would keep the county from having to rely exclusively on property taxes to scare up the necessary $5 million or so annually to cover the debt service for a new HCHS facility. Del. James Edmunds has introduced legislation in the General Assembly to give Halifax County voters the opportunity to approve a local option sales tax via referendum. Let’s hope his bill succeeds. We’ll feel the same way about the ballot question if we ever get to that point.

In the meantime, however, let’s return to the master plans of J.T. Davis, since we’re still in the shoot-the-breeze stage of this discussion. Davis who chairs the finance committee and represents Election District 24/7 on the Board of Supervisors (sorry, couldn’t resist), says he has done “a lot of research” on the merits of a year-round school calendar. From that he has come away convinced the idea can work in Halifax County — both from the perspective of improving education and forestalling the need for a new high school, although he allows that some expansion might be needed at the HCMS campus with the addition of the high school grades (following the subtraction of Grade 6.)

While Davis has plainly put a good deal of effort into his thought process, it remains to be seen whether a back-of-the-napkin analysis can withstand the input of educational experts, consultants, architects and the like. Davis and the finance committee have asked the School Board to commission a study, and as long as the Board of Supervisors is willing to pay the tab, why not.

For the sake of filling out the rest of our allotted space, I’d like to suggest my own ideas, which I will hereby pitch as MY PERFECT PLAN FOR HALIFAX COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS. It is born of that special freedom that arises when a person is unencumbered by reality. Here goes:

» I like the idea of year-round schools. Typically, the calendar includes long breaks (several weeks at least) scattered throughout the year to allow teachers and students to recharge their batteries without falling into a totally idle state, a common pitfall of the 10-week summer vacation. Obviously, we need to look at the relevant research. If it supports year-round schooling as a superior learning option for kids (and I do think the research points in this direction, based on my limited understanding of the subject) then it’s something we probably should do. Oh, by the way, raise teacher pay 20 percent while you’re at it. Overtime ain’t free.

» Sending the sixth grade kiddos back to elementary school: a fine idea. Remember when Halifax County adopted a middle school configuration? It was accompanied by a promise to keep sixth graders separated in their own pod of the HCMS building. I don’t know how long that idea lasted, but I see bottles of wine at the C-store with more age to them.

» Ditch the high school building. Seriously, the many misbegotten aspects of this ‘70s era facility will only grow worse with time, exposing the idea of renovation as the folly that it is. I really like the concept of putting HCHS and HCMS together at the same campus. Our middle school is a lovely building, a shining example of how renovation can succeed, based on a classic high school design that is adaptable to the modern age. You’re not going to be able to do what’s needed with Bunker High a few thousand feet off in the distance. Scrap it.

So far, this could be a column that J.T. Davis himself might write. So let’s get to our points of divergence:

» On the subject of implementing staggered calendars with year-round schooling, the whole point of that particular exercise is to enable cramming six grades (7 through 12) into a structure built for three. To which I say: no, no, good God no. Staggered school calendars may work in Raleigh, where many schools operate on an all-year schedule, but trying such a thing would be a nightmare in Halifax County. Sorry, we need to build new facilities to handle the high school student population, end-of-story. I imagine there would be some synergies to be achieved by putting HCHS and HCMS in close proximity, and an expanded footprint at the middle school campus would allow us to vacate the waterlogged high school site. More on that in a jiff.

» Since you can’t adopt a countywide K-6 configuration without creating big headaches at South Boston and Cluster Springs elementaries, Halifax County either has to expand those facilities or engage in creative drawing of attendance zones sufficient to make gerrymanderers green with envy. How about a different option? Like reopening Halifax Elementary at the current site of the STEM Center? STEM education needs to be brought back to the main high school campus (with significant elements jobbed out to the higher education center) This would leave an empty facility in downtown Halifax which emphatically does not need to be converted into a new central office. I don’t know if having another elementary would help to solve the larger K-6 conundrum, but it seems like an idea that’s worth a look.

» With a workaround for avoiding build-outs at South Boston and Cluster Springs, and returning sixth graders to boost the student populations at Sydnor Jennings, Meadville, Clays Mill, Sinai and Scottsburg elementaries (presumably ending the need to close more than one of those schools, if that) the county would be down to one pressing obligation with its elementaries: renovating Sinai and Meadville to bring them up to par with other schools that were upgraded more than a decade ago. That promise was made, long ago. Keep it.

» My understanding is that there’s not enough room at the HCMS grounds to build a new high school, seemingly putting an end to that idea. Well, how’s this for a fix: tear down Tuck Dillard Stadium and use that land (and more) to build a high school. As for what to do about the Friday Night Lights problem, construct a new stadium at the fairgrounds, um, Event Center as we’re calling it these days, even though the county bought that site for $5 million with the idea of using it to attract the next Microsoft. Best laid plans and whatnot. Since we seem to have moved on from the idea of ever using the fairgrounds to accommodate a major employer, we might as well as go all-in with the Event Center concept. A multi-purpose stadium for sports, concerts and the like should fit the bill. (Since it would be tied to tourism and visitation, you could probably get the Tobacco Commission to pay for it.)

» By my numbers-free reckoning, we ought to be able to rearrange all these pieces for something close to the $100 million estimate on the board at the present moment. (The biggest savings would come from doing relatively little work to the elementaries. On a related note, I grant that giving a 20 percent pay hike to teachers is a reach; by the same token, so is the shift to a year-round school calendar.) How do we goose the equation to make the numbers work on the revenue side? Of course, we should hope and pray for financial relief from the State of Virginia. But here are some things we could do on our own.

First, if we abandon the HCHS facility, that’s a nice piece of land in a commercial area for the county to dispose of. The boring, sensible thing to do would be to sell it off for commercial development. That could get us back a few million bucks that we’ll need to spend in due time. But let’s not be boring and sensible here! Mecklenburg County is also building a new school for grades 6-12, and part of that county’s plan is to establish a working farm next to the high school-middle school complex. Space constraints might be a little tight, but why not do something similar by converting the open HCHS campus into an ag studies incubator? Based on what we know about groundwater levels there, we wouldn’t have to worry about irrigation.

Putting a charge into high school/middle school ag education would be a great fit for Halifax County. It’s also a rejoinder to something we emphatically should not be doing right now, which is giving farmers a big tax subsidy with land use taxation. Land use taxation is a subject for a different day (my allotted space is up already) but if the point is to promote the local farm economy, you’ll get ten times the return on investment by engaging youth with a robust ag program in the secondary grades. Plus it would be good for the teenagers to get out of the classroom for an hour or two each day and roam the cornfields and tomato patch. With all the discussion of why Halifax County needs land use taxation, I have yet to hear a compelling explanation as to how such a tax break will increase local farm production one jot. By contrast, a high school ag barn/demonstration farm could foster new generations of farmers. Who can pay to have better schools for their kids.

So there you have it: a consolidated high school-middle school campus, greenhouses and grasslands across the street from Wendy’s, sixth graders attending school closer to home, an Event Center equipped to host large-capacity events, and if you want to forgo the idea of an HCHS/HCMS ag center, then someone can build a new shopping center there instead. Twenty spitballs says it can all be done for under nine numbers. What do you say?





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