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Heavy lift / May 17, 2018
You remember back in school, when you’d be handed a problem and the teacher would assure you there’s no right or wrong answer, and then you’d come up with the wrong answer anyway? Let the irony of that experience be the starting point for a discussion of the School Board’s newest big lift, deciding how and when to proceed with a replacement for Tuck Dillard Stadium.

At the School Board’s meeting Monday night, two trustees — Joe Gasperini and Walter Potts — laid out opposing arguments for either going forward with or holding off on a decision to build a proposed, $8.9 million stadium that Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg pitched moments earlier during the session. (Spoiler alert: Potts’ argument carried the day, at least for now.) Gasperini asked fellow trustees to support an annual school budget contribution of $200,000 over 10 years towards the stadium’s capital cost. Gasperini’s basic argument, which is hard to dispute, is that in order to attract outside dollars for the stadium, the School Board must first make a tangible, meaningful commitment — that is, involving real dollars of its own — towards the project.

This is simple, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is reasoning by Gasperini, logic that is very hard to dispute. (Being the nice polite reporter that I am, I did have to suppress a laugh when Gasperini observed that such a commitment represents an eminently doable “$200,000 out of a $58 million budget” that the school division has in place for the coming year. Let’s just say this kind of talk is a lot breezier than what we usually hear from the School Board around budget time, when there’s never enough money to hand out raises or purchase new buses or fix broken boilers and A/C units. Give Gasperini credit for coming up with a talking point, albeit not a very good one. Hopefully, county supervisors who set the level of local funding for the school budget and perpetually come up short will let the implications of Gasperini’s remarks slide by unnoticed.)

Okay, on to Potts’ point of view: He made the case, quite forcefully, that it would be crazy for the School Board to make a 10-year, $2 million commitment towards a project that members were seeing for the first time Monday night. That’s pretty unassailable logic, too. To be sure, the stadium plan looks sound; as Lineburg explained, there’s basically nothing to like about Tuck Dillard Stadium in its current state, and the superintendent is probably correct in arguing that the design of the facility was misbegotten from the get-go, as one so often sees with old buildings. (I can think of a late-era 1970s high school that suffers from the same problem.) Still, as Potts aptly noted, the discussion of a new stadium has only just begun, and while the need for a replacement is all but certain, there is considerable uncertainty on how priorities should be arranged: Does it really make sense to make a $9 million push for a football stadium now when the School Board may want $80 million to build a new high school later? And what about the budget tradeoffs that arise with spending money on a new stadium as opposed to, say, textbooks and materials? Concerns about carving $200,000 out of the school operating budget cannot be lightly dismissed.

(All this said — and as long as we’re critiquing the finer points of both men’s arguments Monday night — let it be noted that Potts raised a few eyebrows of his own when he called for the School Board to meet in executive session, i.e. behind closed doors, to discuss and vote on the best way forward on a stadium plan. Um, no. Besides being blatantly illegal under Virginia’s open meetings law, this is exactly the wrong way to go about attracting public support for an expenditure running in the many millions of dollars. To be fair, Potts appeared to mix up executive session with work session, which is somewhat understandable except for the fact these represent completely different things — the first type of meeting is closed and only permissible under clear-cut exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, while the second is public and pretty much like any other meeting of a public governing board, except maybe a bit more freewheeling. Any of us can get sloppy with terminology, but c’mon.)

Occasional rhetorical crack-ups aside, the bottom line from Monday night’s meeting is that Gasperini and Potts both did a good job of putting forth dueling points of view, with many truths voiced all around. When both sides are right, how can anyone be wrong? It may well be that the stadium plan is not quite ripe for action — the School Board voted to carry over the discussion until next month — but the core dilemma is unlikely to change between now and then. How does the School Board attract outside support — private or public — for an expensive stadium if it isn’t first willing to put any skin in the game? And what is the likelihood that trustees will get burnt if they do stick their hands into this particular fire? (Other than “high”?)

The dynamic that drives this chicken-and-egg debate is one we all know about — the fear that accompanies any request for local taxpayers to shell out money to fix up stuff that must be fixed. Before anyone tees off on members of the School Board, consider how much harder their job is compared to members of the Board of Supervisors as they were confronted with the challenge of modernizing the courthouse. Don’t blame us! they’d all say. We’re being sued by meanie judges who are forcing us to do this! By contrast, the trustees have no such Sword of Damocles to show off for the edification of a skeptical public. No legal action is forcing their hand, nor is there imminent threat of the same, unless anyone is worried that the combined heft of Tucker McLaughlin, Joe Chandler, Frank Fincher and Nick Long up in the press box could bring that rustbucket crashing down mid-game while the fans have their eyes glued to the field to cheer on the Comets. (Okay, so maybe there is an imminent threat.) Point is, we only spend money here in Halifax County when we have to, amirite? At long last, we’re getting around to the crux of the problem.

Look: there’s going to be a real knock-down, drag-out debate about what to do with the high school. My gut feeling is the entire thing needs to be razed and built anew, but let’s see what expert opinion has to say on the comparative advantages of renovation vs. new construction. There’s no debate about Tuck Dillard Stadium: it’s truly terrible and needs to be replaced. Every other point raised in this debate may be necessary, but nothing else will be any more important than that. When it first became apparent that Mark Lineburg would bring up a request for a stadium before a new high school, I was among those who wondered if this was a good idea. But you know what? The alternatives — tucking a new stadium into a comprehensive facilities plan, or tackling a new high school first and holding off on the rest for now — are equally likely to fail. Why not just put forth a well-developed plan for a stadium and find out who is sincere about modernizing our school facilities and who is not?

There will always be naysayers among us: nattering nabobs of negativism, the we’re-dead-already-so-let’s do-nothing crowd, and their modern-day counterparts, the internet trolls. Ignore ‘em: this is not a personal plea so much as a test for determining whether Halifax County will stay afloat in the future. As it happens, building a new football stadium is a pretty good way of finding out whether we have it in us to save ourselves. For one thing, it’s not unreasonable to think that such an endeavor might actually draw substantial outside support: people do enjoy their Friday night football. Whenever someone suggests a private-public partnership to build a highway or even a public school facility, I’m skeptical, but a football stadium makes perfect sense. And Lineburg has been very smart about pitching the project in exactly these terms, going so far as to describe the middle school/high school facility as a “county stadium.” We could use something like that. So why not build just such a stadium when the schools need one anyway?

It’s probably too much to believe that a successful outcome on a stadium project would make the challenge of tackling the high school any easier. Momentum is a sportscaster’s trope, not a real thing. And it’s gotten somewhat trite to intone the immortal words, “Build it and they will come.” Maybe yes, maybe no. Ultimately, however, we do need to put our presumed commitments to our children and to the betterment of Halifax County to the test. It’s not like the citizenry ever refuses to step up: in fact, recent county history is replete with examples of the civic-minded initiatives drawing wide support. We’ve just gotten a little rusty at this sort of thing, that’s all. More debate and deliberation regarding a stadium is a good and necessary thing, but only up to a point. To cite one of the oldest sporting clichés in the book: folks, we’ve gotta keep our eyes on the ball.

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