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First order of business / October 17, 2019

Is it revealing too much information if I admit how much I’ve enjoyed the contributed opinion pieces, last week and today, on the school sales tax referendum by SVHEC president Betty Adams and our new IDA director, Brian Brown?

Both authors have done an excellent job laying out the case for why county citizens should support the 1 percent sales tax to modernize Halifax County High School. Their op-eds have been clear, concise, and well-reasoned. Of course, by carrying the ball on the referendum, Adams and Brown have saved me the trouble of tub-thumping on the same subject. Selfish reasoning I know, but there it is.

At the risk of overloading readers who may feel worn out already by the Halifax County High School debate, there are two cents I want to add to what Brown writes in his piece today. (I’ll offer up my remaining 98 cents in subsequent editions.) He hones in on the importance of modern school facilities in raising up the quality of K-12 education. This is a first-order, foundational point that cannot be stressed often enough. It’s especially important to emphasize because of the commonly held notion, which is not exactly inaccurate but is certainly limited, that quality schools can be found inside less-than-ideal facilities. True. When it happens, though, there’s almost always a special, non-translatable reason for the school’s success — maybe the student population is small, or the school draws support of a kind not available to most communities, or it benefits from demographic factors that, again, don’t apply everywhere. Let’s be real: Halifax County operates a big sprawling high school for students who may or may not get a lot of educational support at home. Big schools are unwieldy by nature, and they suffer mightily when the layout of the building is haphazard, outdated or run-down — all valid descriptions of our high school. (And no, a second high school in the county isn’t happening, unless someone wants to propose a fairly hefty tax increase or close down several elementary schools to pay for splitting up HCHS.)

The argument for quality school facilities, by the way, isn’t just backed by the breezy scribblings of some C- level newspaper pundit (but I repeat myself). The research on this subject is clear: a few of weeks ago, I was reading up on K-12 education and the impact of school facilities when I landed on a Texas Tech study from 2009. A university researcher looked at 72 rural high schools in Texas to determine the relative importance of demography and facilities in the general performance of a school. Not surprisingly, wealthier communities tended to feature high-quality schools regardless of the age or condition of the facilities (although you can look around the Commonwealth at places like Northern Virginia that have modern, state-of-the-art schools for no other reason than they have to keep throwing up new buildings to accommodate population growth.) Where the linkage between the quality of education and the quality of the school facility was especially strong, the Texas Tech study found, was in rural communities much like our own. Here’s the takeaway:

This study found that the student wealth level contributed most to the variance in student achievement. However, the condition of school facilities has a measurable effect over and above socioeconomic conditions on student achievement and teacher turnover, particularly when found in rural schools made up of primarily low-income students. Significant findings with regard to condition of school facilities included: 1. Rural public high schools with a large percentage of portable classrooms have lower student achievement and higher teacher turnover. 2. Rural public high schools with a large percentage of deferred maintenance in their facilities have lower student achievement. School leaders are not able to control the socioeconomic conditions of the students they serve. The do, however, have some control over the quality of their school facilities. Excellent facilities for children who need them the least and inadequate facilities for the ones who need them the most violates the principal of equal educational opportunity for all children.

That concluding sentence is particularly important to dwell upon. As usual in Southside Virginia, we face the challenge of not falling irreparably behind our well-heeled neighbors elsewhere in Virginia (forget the rest of the world) when it comes to the provision of quality schools. Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg is constantly beating the drum that Halifax County’s students are as capable and talented as students anywhere, and he’s absolutely right about that. But no child, no matter how talented or hard-working, can completely overcome the handicap of coming up in a system that maintains shoddy buildings or offers a lame curriculum. Forward-looking communities will have many reasons for building new schools — civic pride, economic development, projecting a positive image to outsiders — but none are more important than the simple imperative of doing right by our children and grandchildren. This is a principle we apply to our precious family time. We should extend it to school time, too.

If the cost burdens were so great that rebuilding HCHS presented an agonizing choice, with trade-offs and downsides everywhere the eye can see, that would be one thing. But the proposed sales tax gives Halifax County the opportunity to pay for a modern high school facility in relatively painless fashion. (As Brian Brown notes above, and Betty Adams similarly observed in her op-ed last week on this page, a major share of the sales tax revenue for a new school will come from visitors to the county.) The school sales tax referendum, if it passes, will level the playing field on which we compete against better-resourced communities. Given the chance to keep pace with the rest of the world, and perhaps even spring a few steps ahead, it would be a shame if we let the opportunity go to waste.

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