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Crunch time / October 30, 2019

Let’s imagine a world where the sales tax referendum fails.

What then?

Well, for starters, we’ll need to go back to square one on the question of how to maintain and upgrade Halifax County High School. This is the root of our problems, right? Our high school facility is more than 40 years old. It was built in an era when design and construction standards were decidedly substandard (as architects in today’s era widely agree. By the way, they don’t trash the school construction standards of the 1950s and 1960s. Some buildings are more suited to be renovated than others.) You know what else everyone agrees on? Heating, cooling and other environmental systems at the high school must be replaced — soon, if not immediately. That’s a $30 million cost item, about the same as the courthouse renovations. How do we as a county get on top of an expense like this?

The questions are daunting but the answers, not surprisingly, are the same ones you’d come up with if this were a personal dilemma — maybe even a personal trauma — instead of a civic challenge that we all face. What would you say in such a situation? Break down the problem into manageable pieces. Don’t freak out. Happily accept the help of friends and even strangers. Be creative.

Well, approving the sales tax checks all those boxes and more. It’s a miniscule amount of money to fork over on a person-by-person, day-to-day basis that will go towards correcting one of Halifax County’s biggest deficiencies: our lack of a modern, vibrant high school to offer to families, community stakeholders, and outsiders who may look to come here (and believe me, they’ll ask about the quality of the schools — first question on the list.) In terms of what the sales tax will mean individually, the impact is light. In terms of revenue, it’s a heavyweight. Roughly $100 million over 30 years — the estimated windfall from the tax — will go a long way towards solving our high school problem. It also sets the stage for investments in elementary buildings a few more years down the line.

Oh, and the part about gladly accepting help from strangers? About 20 percent of sales tax revenue will come from people just passing through.

But you’ve no doubt heard these arguments before (if not, see the pages to follow and our Section C. While you’re at it, block out a chunk of your weekend.) Yet what doesn’t get expressed enough in the supposedly hard-nosed, dollars-and-cents debates that we fancy ourselves having is what a modern high school would mean for our children and grandchildren. Set aside the fact that a revamped HCHS will to present a vastly improved image of Halifax County to the world. Put in your pocket, for now, the argument that a new school will boost economic development — maybe yes, maybe no, the theory is valid enough but real life results don’t always match up with theory.

Let’s just break this thing down to look at what we can control: the educational benefits for our children and grandchildren. The quality of school facilities matter. There’s a chorus of voices that say you can have excellent schools inside a barn. This may be so in unique circumstances, but ask yourself: when’s the last time you saw a top-notch school division sending its children to a barn for the classroom day?

Searching around the internet for reliable, research-based information (as opposed to the other kind of information you find on the internet), it didn’t take long to come upon a 2018 analysis in The Washington Post which quickly lays out the benefits of quality school buildings:

School facility issues generally receive less attention from education policy experts than other issues, despite direct links between the condition of schools and a school’s ability to educate. Research has shown how factors like poor temperature control, indoor air quality and lighting can negatively affect student learning. Other research has suggested that improving school facilities could boost teacher retention as much as, if not greater than, raising teacher salaries.

Hmm … poor temperature control and indoor air quality. Bad lighting (with almost no natural light). Teachers leaving for other jobs because they don’t like their chock-a-bloc high school building, with its narrow hallways, outdated footprint, non-functioning and archaic equipment, so on and so forth. Sound familiar? It should. That one paragraph in a Googled article in a national newspaper describes the state of Halifax County High School to a “T”. HCHS has a fine gym (if perhaps oversized) and after that there’s not one design feature in the building that you’d choose if you were choosing today. As Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg aptly observes, the building inhibits student learning in just about every respect. This is the opposite of what a well-designed building should do.

This past week, Danville-Pittsylvania County landed a 703-job industry (Morgan Olsen, a step van manufacturer, which more than replaces the jobs lost when IKEA closed up at the same location earlier this year). In response to this happy news, some folks took to social media to complain about the fact that Halifax didn’t get this project, going on to argue that our successful neighbors didn’t need to spend tens of millions of dollars on their schools to attract this new industry. Let’s just note here that the moaners and wailers should’ve quit while they were behind.

By an overwhelming margin, Pittsylvania County voters in 2007 approved a $70 million bond referendum to renovate their four high schools, all of which were built in the 1960s or earlier, and which now stand as modern and visually appealing facilities. Pittsylvania has poured substantial sums of money into the Pittsylvania County Career and Technical Center, and city and county schools have combined to create the Regional Governor’s School program at the Institute for Learning and Advanced Research. City of Danville Public Schools even operates a high school with an International Baccalaureate program. (Disclaimer: both my kids have gone through the IB program in Danville.)

Can we match these investments that Danville and Pittsylvania have made in their schools? No, but we don’t we need to — we just need to do better than we do now. A lot better. Every community is different, each must find its own mix of what it can afford and what it expects, and communities that strive for progress have a way of finding it. That’s the issue with the sales tax referendum. When low goals are set, poor outcomes inevitably follow. We can do better.

Half a century ago, Halifax County and South Boston fought a fraternal, sometimes ugly battle top replace a high school building that was clearly unsuited for the future. The voices of progress won then (with the help of a federal grant) and they can win now. But that means getting out Tuesday and pulling the lever “yes for schools.” Please do so. We’ll see you at the polls.

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