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Dare we hope / September 30, 2021
The Joint Facilities Committee of the Halifax County School Board and Board of Supervisors met Tuesday to try and work out a solution to our high school problem. A few weeks ago, the School Board voted to build an all-new HCHS facility to replace the travesty of a building that we now depend on to educate our children. None of this is new, of course. What would be a breakthrough is for the two boards to finally agree on a course of action. Can it happen? If Tuesday’s meeting is any indication, the answer is .... maybe yes?

Ordinarily, only a starry-eyed optimist would venture to think that the Board of Supervisors and School Board might align on what will likely amount to a $260 million decision. That’s roughly the sum total needed to achieve the long-term priorities of Halifax County Public Schools — from raising the woeful salaries of our local school employees, to fixing our high school, and right-sizing the county’s seven elementary schools while adjusting for a declining student enrollment. All the while avoiding the costs of renovating buildings that are six decades old and not getting any younger.

At first glance, the position of our county supervisors —the ones who do the most talking, anyway — is predictable as clockwork: their answer is to fix everything as cheaply as possible, long-term value be damned. The other line you’ll typically hear from supervisors is that other localities seem to find a way to build schools for less than the $120 million or so that is being bandied around as the cost for a new Halifax County High School, so why can’t we?

What people who make these comparisons don’t seem to realize — or don’t say — is that the examples they give usually don’t involve the same type of school. Before he resigned from the School Board, ED-6 trustee Todd Moser did exactly this — throwing out a cost figure for a new middle school in Rustburg that, on a square-foot basis, is much lower than the estimates people are using for a replacement HCHS. It all might seem like an apples-to-apples comparison, but it really isn’t.

Why? Because high schools and middle schools (to say nothing of elementary schools) are considerably different in terms of facility and construction requirements. The Virginia Department of Education has a link on its website where anyone can go to fetch a copy of a 2013 report, “Guidelines for School Facilities in Virginia Public Schools.” In that report, the department lays out the requirements for prototypical middle schools and high schools in Virginia. Just to spare everyone the drudgery contained in the report’s 82 pages, let’s go to Appendices C and D, where VDOE lists the “Additional Instructional Spaces” of a modern middle school and high school. There are 10 such instructional spaces required of middle schools — for subjects such as health education, art, music and band, and for specialized resource areas such as English language learners and special education.

And the same number, for a prototypical high school in Virginia? Thirty-one. Why would a high school require so many more types of instructional spaces? Because high schools — good ones, certainly — offer diverse curriculum choices, in everything from home economics and culinary arts to health occupations, construction trades, and all other sorts of career and technical fields. This is exactly the kind of results-oriented educational approach that everyone claims to want for Halifax County (rightly so), but lots of people (some on the Board of Supervisors, alas) aren’t willing to pay for. Long story short, the cost of building a new high school — at least a high-quality high school — isn’t remotely comparable to the cost of a less complex school construction project like a middle school. Anyone who insists otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or is trying to intentionally muddy the public understanding of the issues involved.

The clear answer, if not necessarily the easy answer, for our high school is to build a new one. (As a viable alternative, one that builders have presented to the School Board, you could tear down and reconstruct most of the HCHS building but keep the gym and auditorium, making renovations to both.) Trying to retrofit the space needs of a modern-day education instructional program into a badly-constructed and badly-designed building from the late 1970s is not only not “fiscally responsible,” it’s pure folly — which means of course we should be worried this will be the exact route our county supervisors will insist on taking.

Yet, to outward appearances, two board members who have voiced past skepticism on the need for a new high school seemed at least open to the facts at the Joint Facilities Committee’s Tuesday afternoon pow-wow. The members in question are Ricky Short and Dean Throckmorton, ED-1 and ED-5 supervisors, neither of whom have evinced much interest in the past in doing more than the minimum to fix up HCHS. As you delve deeper into the situation at the high school, however, one reality persistently jumps to the front of the line. You may remember a version of this from the old TV commercial: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

The HCHS question falls squarely within this tradition, especially the part where “pay me later” costs a lot more than “pay me now.” People generally aren’t all that great at grasping the difference between price and value (there are days when I don’t understand either one), but probably the best way to distinguish between the two is that value is a function of the price of something divided by the amount of time you’ll actually enjoy it. What does it profit a county government to pay for bottom-dollar facilities that’ll fall apart long before the last bill comes due?

On Tuesday, the two administrators who are guiding the committee’s discussion — Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg and County Administrator Scott Simpson — each proved they had done their homework on how the county can marshal the money and resources to pay for a new HCHS facility and other high-priority needs of Halifax County Public Schools. (Fixing the teacher salary scale is number one on the list, as evidenced by the flight of some of our finest teachers this summer to higher-paying school divisions). Lineburg and Simpson each came prepared at the committee meeting with wonky fact sheets and enough charts to sink an ICU. But while they did a bang-up job of mustering the facts, it’s up to our elected leaders — especially on the Board of Supervisors — to muster the fortitude to do what best serves the long-term interests of Halifax County.

People constantly lament Halifax’s shrinking population, a problem that has been ongoing for years, without acknowledging one of the biggest factors that will persuade any family to move to greener pastures — the quality of the local schools. Clinging to a deeply flawed and fading high school is the equivalent of walking out the door and turning off the lights. Maybe the better analogy is throwing in the towel. Either way, now that the School Board has gone on record in favor of building a new high school, it’s time for the Board of Supervisors to make its stand. On Tuesday, two members from whom you wouldn’t expect a particularly favorable outcome didn’t flat-out say “no.”

It’s a start, right?

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