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Even with construction of new school, money will be needed for elementary schools, empty buildings by 2021


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Catching up / March 22, 2018
It’s been awhile. Let’s see what we can do to catch up on the news:

» It was with sadness and surprise that we learned this week of the death of Wanda Jeffress at the age of 60. The surprise part comes mostly from not keeping up with folks — Wanda apparently had been battling health issues for some time — but also because her unfailingly positive personality could easily leave people (like me) blind to any underlying struggles. In all my interactions with Wanda over the years, which were only occasional, I can’t ever remember coming away other than impressed by what an upbeat, kind and smart person she was. You don’t imagine such people — forever young in spirit, seemingly looking forward to what the new day may bring — departing so soon. She will be sorely missed.

Her civic and community contributions were numerous and vital, but perhaps none was any more important than her work in the real estate business (Wanda was an agent for Realty Resource) where day in and day out, she served as an ambassador for Halifax County to people on the outside looking to buy property here or even move in. It’s an important job, and it’s easy to see why Wanda would have been good at it. Some folks just have a gift for making others around them feel better about the world. If only there were more such giftedness to go around.

» Different subject: the county budget. It’s not great. The Board of Supervisors held a budget public hearing on Monday and what we learned from the experience is that some folks aren’t happy about a proposed tax increase (1 cent added to the real estate property rate, bringing it to 49 cents per $100) while others are anguished by the perpetual lack of county support for the schools, law enforcement, mental health, the library (don’t know what that $10,000 cut in the library budget is supposed to accomplish), and a long list of other needs. In other words, the hearing produced no surprises. It also offered no easy answers, and I don’t envy supervisors the task of deciding how to balance the county’s competing financial pressures and needs.

But I will say this: You can’t dwindle your way towards greatness. Our local tax-and-spend debates are influenced by the perception that Halifax County is on the decline, and that may be true enough so far as it goes. But taking the road of cutting services and public investments to keep taxes low for the sake of a stagnant (or falling) population is guaranteed to produce an unhappy end. I really, really dislike foolish uses of public money (hence our periodic forays into the follies of the Virginia Tobacco Commission) but Halifax County does not ever go wrong when it pays teachers more or invests in better school facilities.

None of this absolves the need for hard choices — we may need to go with fewer elementary schools in the future, say — but it also argues against defaulting to the easiest choice, which is to simply do nothing at all. We have a high school to fix up or replace, our children would benefit from a more robust academic and career education curriculum, and the list goes on and on. Obviously, not all needs can be met, but we can do better than telling ourselves, “maybe next year.” I’m a big Chicago Cubs fan and, believe me, it feels good to have finally gotten away from that mindset. Our many challenges notwithstanding, Halifax County can do better than it does.

» I was planning to write this week about the candidate forum at the museum that featured the four Democratic contenders running for Congress to unseat Republican incumbent Tom Garrett, but ran into a couple of problems. One, it was a hellaciously busy week, and the question of how Democrats can unseat Garrett is a topic that will require time and thought before I might be able to say something valuable in this space. Two, because I was snowed under Monday night, I was unable to attend the forum and actually hear the candidates. Bummer. However, lots of other people showed up, which speaks to the high level of interest in the race. A turnout of around 100 people to hear from Democratic candidates more than six months out from a November mid-term congressional election is not too shabby. To be continued.

» Students at the high school and middle school turned out in surprisingly strong numbers on March 14 to take part in the national school walkout to protest gun violence. I’m proud of these kids — while I’m sure some were just along for the ride (and 17 minutes away from class), the overwhelming impression from the protest is that lots of young people are just as sick as a lot of us adults are about the shamefully high toll that the U.S. tolerates in the name of unfettered access to guns. Just to repeat: This isn’t about taking guns away from people (unless there’s clear cause to do so). It’s about reestablishing the principal that guns can kill and a high degree of responsibility should be attached to their ownership and use. Which means background checks. And limits on the lethality of weapons in the wrong hands (which means, on the easy side, no more bump stocks and, on the harder, more problematic end of the question, what kind of limits should be placed on semi-automatic weapons that are now readily available for purchase). I doubt many of the student protestors have carefully studied the policy options on gun safety, to which I’d add: Welcome to the club. There are many things we need to talk about, for certain. But ruling out the idea of talking at all is more than enough for me to applaud young people raising their voices in opposition to such nonsense.

» Which brings us to our conclusion this week: Facebook sucks. The social media company is in the headlines with revelations of a possible data breach by Cambridge Analytics, the scandal-ridden campaign consulting firm for Donald Trump that used information scooped from people’s Facebook pages to conduct a disinformation operation on behalf of a man who already has cemented his reputation as the worst president in the history of the republic, ever, hands down. Facebook has some explaining to do as to how — and to what extent — Cambridge Analytics was able to exploit its ecosystem to carry out what for all intents and purposes was a dirty tricks operation. (There’s a more pungent term that Hunter S. Thompson invented to describe such sustained and dodgy opposition tactics, but this is a family newspaper which means you’ll have to go look up Thompson’s unique gift for phraseology for yourself.)

But there’s the thing: Facebook doesn’t have to be awful. It can be a rather useful for keeping up with folks or, I dunno, sharing recipes and stuff. (I do despise the videos, though.) It’s absolutely at its worst as a platform for expressing political views. Has anyone ever been swayed by someone else spouting off about politics on Facebook? I doubt it. And while the idea of column-writing is to do the same thing — probably with similar results — at least there’s an idea here of developing an argument that’s almost entirely devoid on social media. There the idea seems to be to scream and shout at each other. Is that what we really want for ourselves, our country and for the world?

Did I mention already that Facebook sucks?

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