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Halifax County churches hit by thieves during Sunday services

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Halifax trustees tap members to work with supervisors on facilities plan


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Opinion

Cutting it close

SoVaNow.com / July 18, 2019
Give Halifax County officials credit for one thing: they do like to cling tight to their secrets.

First, it was recycling: the county program was discontinued without any notice to the public — particularly the dutiful citizens who trudged to the nearest convenience center to deposit items they believed were going somewhere other than the landfill. I don’t know about anyone else, but the amount of trash our household is hauling to the curb nowadays feels like it’s doubled.

But hey, recycling is a genuinely tough deal for local governments. China has stopped taking our trash, the market is semi-imploded, and there are questions about the true environmental benefits of recycling even in the best of times. Of course, this is a separate debate from the one involving the public’s right to know.

Which leads us to our bigger topic of the day: the plan for Halifax County High School. On our front page, you’ll find two articles that delve into the latest doings of the Halifax County board of supervisors and school board, both of which are sitting on information that may well decide whether or not a new school facility gets built. In the case of the supervisors, they’ve received a “second opinion” architectural study that members commissioned to vet the work of Moseley Architects, the school board’s firm. (You’ll recall that Moseley produced the $99 million cost figure for a new high school, which is a guesstimate and nothing more at this point.) The school board is keeping its own information packet under wraps: a bona fide proposal to construct the school facility, with at least a semi-firm dollar number and preliminary design included. This is the PPEA (public-private partnership) plan submitted by Branch Builds, a Roanoke contractor that, by the way, did a wonderful job renovating the middle school. What the Branch Builds plan tells us about the project scope and expense of a new high school, well, I have no earthly idea.

And fair enough. It’s perfectly legitimate (and legal) for public officials to withhold public information under certain circumstances, such as when disclosure would harm the competitive position of local government in bargaining for property or infrastructure work. The School Board PPEA certainly fits this description. As for the board of supervisors, members plan to release the details of their second opinion architectural study in two weeks, so it’s not as if they intend to take any secrets to the grave.

But what is disturbing about this situation is the apparent inability or unwillingness of supervisors and school officials to establish common ground on what to do about the high school. Two dates to circle on your calendar: Aug. 5 and Aug. 16. The first is the date of the upcoming supervisors meeting, when members will divulge what they’ve learned from OWPR, Inc., the Blacksburg firm that carried out the second opinion study. (In essence, these are the findings that supervisors are likely to insist on following, since they paid for the study.) That Aug. 16 date? That’s when the board must have its ducks in a row to place a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot for 1-cent local sales tax, the vehicle that everyone agrees will lessen the strain of paying for school improvements. (Otherwise the full burden falls on property tax payers. And capital improvements have to happen sooner or later.)

The kicker here, of course, is that the board of supervisors talk a good game about developing a HCHS solution with the school board to present to voters in the fall, but members are giving that consensus-building process less than two weeks. I mean, it’s not like the two boards have exactly seen eye-to-eye up to this point. Trustees are pressing forward with plans to build a new school, supervisors shift around uncomfortably in their seats, and the clock ticks away at the deadline for letting voters know what to expect. They say secrets can be deadly; let’s hope it ain’t so.

Some supervisors have made the argument there’s no need to present a specific plan for HCHS in asking voters to approve a revenue stream (i.e., the sales tax) to pay for the facility’s future. I cordially disagree. A referendum seeking a tax increase without offering a tangible plan in return sounds like a political dead-end to me. Better for the two boards to come up with a firm package to sell to the public: by my lights, that needs to be a new and appealing high school — something the county can be genuinely proud of, which I don’t think is possible with the existing building — and a means for financing the project that makes sense. (The sales tax is a huge part of the answer.) I dunno, maybe county and school officials are sharing more information with each other than they let on, and the two boards aren’t as far apart as they seem. But still: Aug. 16 is less than a month away. Some folks do love their cliffhangers.

***

I’ve been laying off national politics in recent months, because 2020 is going to be hellish experience and I have no particular desire to “go there” until necessary. But recent events do cry out for a response. A short list: A purported billionaire financier was arrested this week on charges of sex trafficking; in the past month the President of the United States was credibly accused of rape; migrant children continue to caged at the border; and now Donald Trump has been condemned by the U.S. House of Representatives for broadcasting racist Tweets about four Congresswomen of color, telling them to “go back” to their own country (which happens to be the U.S.) in a display of ugliness and hate that anyone should be able to recognize for what it is.

There’s a lot that you can say about Trump’s tweets — none of it good — but everyone should recognize that his latest blow-up isn’t a one-off, or an aberration, or another Trumpian dumpster fire accomplished without purpose. This is a deliberate strategy to demonize the four representatives — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — in a bid to drive up the vote of Trump’s base, foreshadowing what’s in store for next year’s presidential campaign. To be clear, I think this is a stupid strategy, as evidenced by Trump’s similar nasty rhetoric about undocumented immigrants in the leadup to the 2018 mid-term elections. Remember the caravans? As you’ll recall, Republicans pretty much got their heads handed to them last year, which certainly calls into question the near-term political effectiveness of bald-faced racism and xenophobia in a diversifying country. The long-term impact? Woof.

At any rate, on Tuesday night the House voted 240-187 to pass a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks about the four Members. Four Republicans located their spines and joined Democrats in the condemnation vote, while all the others, including 5th District Rep. Denver Riggleman, evinced the cowardice and hypocrisy that have become Republican Party bywords. It’s a pathetic sight to see. The Congressional resolution paid tribute to the role that immigrants have played in America’s success, quoting at length a president who observed, “We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world, and by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation ... thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge.’’ That president? Ronald Reagan.

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