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High stakes drama / May 09, 2019
You may have read elsewhere about that art house film in which Earth’s Mightiest Superheroes have a 14 million-to-one chance to knock off some big purple dude by the name of Thanos. If those odds are too off-putting, perhaps you can wrap your mind around the idea of 20 or 30 Democrats running to knock off a somewhat less imposing orange dude whose name shall go unmentioned here.

Meantime, here in Halifax County, there are four architectural firms — count ‘em, just four! — vying for the right to develop a solution for how we should accomplish a much-needed modernization of our high school. (The breakdown, by the way, is three firms invited by a school facilities committee to produce a new HCHS design, and a fourth firm retained by the Halifax County Board of Supervisors to provide a “second opinion” on a preliminary HCHS study offered by the Halifax County School Board’s consulting architect, which also has now been invited to present a full-blown plan for a new school.)

Fourteen million sounds like a much more perilous number than four, but is it really? There are no scriptwriters or showrunners to fill in the storyline of how the greatest proposed investment in Halifax County’s future will pan out. So naturally, there’s uncertainly in the air, and confusion too, and with so much at stake folks are beginning to get nervous.

Which isn’t the same thing as saying everyone is rushing to get on the same page.

This is the problem with uncertainty: Every approach is as good as the next until proven otherwise. But unlike with the Avengers, there will be no sequel if, come November, voters in the county reject a proposed 1-cent local sales tax to pay for school capital improvements. If the upcoming referendum to approve the sales tax fails, there’s practically zero chance of ever again being able to take the full fiscal burden of a future (and inevitable) high school replacement project off the backs of local citizens who pay local property tax bills. As Thanos himself might say with a “no” vote in November, “No resurrections this time!”

On Monday night, the Board of Supervisors turned in a restrained performance in their ongoing drama with the School Board, not exactly Hollywood fodder even if it’s the most important thing going on with local government right now. We are indeed in the performative stage of the high school saga, with trustees and supervisors jockeying to establish why their approach for the high school will prove best. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the source of all this dramatic tension: The School Board wants to build an all-new high school to replace the existing HCHS facility, and the supervisors, while less clear in their intent, keep hinting at a desire to renovate what we’ve got.

That brings us to the comments Monday night by two supervisors, Stanley Brandon and William Bryant Claiborne, who urged fellow board members — and by extension the general public — to set aside the build-vs.-rebuild HCHS debate for now. “We should focus not so much on new or renovated, but on our essential need for the penny increase,” said Brandon. The precise outline of the high school project is “a decision that can be made later, that’s all I’m saying,” added Claiborne. “But we’ve got to get that penny through.”

At some level both supervisors are right, of course, and anyone who thinks that passage of a citizen-imposed tax increase is some kind of slam-dunk is kidding themselves. In this respect, board members deserve credit for trying to tamp down on any discord that may overtake dealings between the supervisors and trustees. Joe Gasperini, chairman of the latter group, has been the most outspoken figure in calling for construction of a new HCHS building, and it’s notable that supervisors declined to take the bait Monday even after Gasperini voiced criticisms of the supervisors’ hiring of an architect to offer a second opinion. Gasperini’s exact words were that supervisors are “playing catch-up.” Even J.T. Davis, not known for an aversion to monologue, offered a restrained response: “We’re definitely on different pages there.” That was more or less all Davis said, much to his credit.

Look, I’ve written this before and I’ll say it again: it’s surprising that self-proclaimed Team Halifax could pull off an achievement as unlikely and frankly amazing as going to the General Assembly and becoming the first locality in the State of Virginia to gain a chance to enact a local sales tax to pay for a replacement HCHS, without actually agreeing on what that replacement should consist of. I guess lawmakers in Richmond must not have thought to ask the question of how exactly Team Halifax planned to spend its newfound tax revenue, because hoo boy. So in this respect, Brandon, Claiborne, et al. make a sound point: Instead of getting bogged down in details — or really, one big detail — let’s focus instead on something relatively uncontroversial: whether to diversify the county revenue base with a sales tax, and make people pulling up to Sheetz en route to the beach or to the mountains add the sales tax penny to our new (or renovated) high school.

Sounds simple, right? Perhaps. But if I may offer a counterpoint, there’s a risk with this approach: If the November referendum comes down to Halifax County’s leadership appealing for passage of a new tax, without saying exactly what this tax will pay for, citizens will be deprived of the best argument for voting “yes”: The positive, most excellent return — a first-rate high school — that we’ll get for our money. There’s reams of polling data to suggest voters are amenable to tax increases as long as the money goes to pay for something they want. It’s hard to make a sale when you can’t tell the buyer what you’re proposing to deliver. Apologies for one last “Avengers” reference, but without an endgame, in which voters understand the benefits of what they’re voting for, all that’s left is the ersatz question of whether adding one more method of taxation to the existing list is better than leaving well enough alone. I’m not sure I like the sound of that question.

As to the objections to building a new high school (which is my off-the-cuff preference), I would simply argue this: Price isn’t always a measure of value — county supervisors thought they would save money by renovating portions of the courthouse rather than start over, and that sure hasn’t turned out well. We’ve gotten four decades of usage out of HCHS, a massive building was designed in the era of the polyester dance-floor suit, and that didn’t turn out well either. Sometimes, walking away from what you’ve got is the best solution to a vexing problem, even if decision comes at a cost. As for those who say we should spend our money on teacher salaries, not facilities, allow us a two-part reply: (1) the quality of facilities does matter — as borne out by research, and by the simple observation that quality school districts don’t tolerate dumpy school buildings; and (2) people who spout this line in opposition to fixing up the high school are dependably nowhere in sight when it comes to supporting tax increases to fund school salaries. Bait and switch is an old game.

Supervisors and the School Board still have time to get the high school question right, even with four architects in the mix offering their own takes on what should be done. OWPR, the firm hired by the Board of Supervisors, won’t have time to produce a full-blown answer for how we could possibly achieve our educational objectives within the context of the existing HCHS facility, but perhaps they can offer valuable input on what parts of the building can be saved and which need to go. As a practical matter, supervisors and trustees must be on the same page by August, the deadline for placing a voter referendum on the November ballot. Let the process play out until then.

The good news is we’re nowhere close to facing 14 million-to-one odds. Not yet.

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