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Harsh words, upheld vote

Halifax County supervisors affirm Pannell as board chairman after acrimonious exchanges

MEC wins funding for county fiber broadband

EMPOWER to use $710K grant on Halifax expansion

Messages of love and uplift at MLK breakfast


Comets drop two straight games

Fall to GW Friday and Appomattox on Wednesday





Hooray and back at it / November 07, 2019
Weeks ago, back when the promise of stirring victory or crushing disappointment hung in the air in equal measure, the audience at the School Board’s October meeting at Sydnor Jennings Elementary heard two theories on how the vote on the 1 percent sales tax referendum might turn out. A speaker at the meeting warned trustees that the sales tax proposal was running into stiff opposition and they had much more work to do to win over the voting public. That was one point of view. The other was expressed by School Board chair Sandra Garner Coleman, who predicted the referendum’s overwhelming passage. Personally, I found the discussion (you can’t really call it an exchange of opinions as the remarks came up randomly during the meeting) deeply unsettling in the way that testing your luck is always unsettling. I mean, who really knew?

Now we know.

An idea that seemed vaguely preposterous at the start — asking citizens to raise their own taxes to generate millions of dollars for a wholesale upgrade of the high school — not only emerged as a winning proposition on Election Day, but, hat tip to our School Board chair, it left the park in a hurry as a no-doubt-about-it home run for Halifax County. That’s true in every sense of the term: the sales tax passed by a 71-29 margin, a surprising if not stunning landslide, and the success of the referendum means we get to control our own destiny by modernizing Halifax County High School and, in the process, creating a better community in which to live, work and raise families.

Going into Tuesday, it was commonly observed that the eyes of Virginia would be on Halifax as voters gave either a thumbs up or down to a school financing mechanism that had never been tried before in the state. Rest assured, the idea will now spread to many other places. Credit for Tuesday’s outcome goes to dozens, if not hundreds of people who put a shoulder to the wheel and pushed the referendum over the top, but Del. James Edmunds deserves special recognition for getting the referendum through the General Assembly and signed into law, seemingly against all odds. Dozens of Virginia localities have school infrastructure deficits just as severe as our own, if not more so, and on Election Day Halifax County presented itself to the world as a forward-looking community willing to set aside anti-tax orthodoxy in pursuit of its own betterment. That’s a powerful message and an example for others to follow, and they surely will.

So there you have it: a feel-good ending to a hard but clean fight, with the promise of greater things ahead. There are dozens of individual winners you could pick from Tuesday’s outcome, but no one fared any better than Halifax County students and their families. Hooray for them, and hooray for us.

And now comes round two.

And maybe the heavier lift?

It’s an unavoidable subject, what to do next — it certainly must be confronted at this point, even if a decision was made early on by the powers-that-be to downplay the question of how, exactly, our $3.3 million annually/$100 million, 30-year revenue windfall should be spent. Build a new high school or renovate the existing (and bad) facility? And if renovation emerges as the preferred option, what should that entail? The people have spoken on the matter of whether Halifax County should raise taxes to upgrade school facilities. Everything else is unclear. Always and forever, the devil is in the details, and a devil of a time lies ahead in working through these questions.

Hand-in-hand with lopsided passage of the sales tax, a number of candidates won seats on the Board of Supervisors and School Board after expressly stating they would oppose construction of a new school. When asked to explain this viewpoint, more often than not these candidates gave some version of the same answer, “Because this is what my constituents want.” Everyone ought to be cautious in thinking the voters rendered a verdict one way or another Tuesday on the new school vs. renovation question. Who’s to say that a referendum expressly crafted to authorize the construction of a new high school wouldn’t have passed? I do think it’s fair to say some share of Tuesday’s “yes” vote would have melted away under such a scenario. But would have it been 10 percent, 20 percent, or what? We’ll never know the answer to this question because the question wasn’t presented under this referendum. We’ll have to fill in our own response.

Be wary of anyone who claims a mandate to minimize expenditures on HCHS going forward. If that’s what citizens had in mind as their top priority on Election Day, would they have really voted to raise their own taxes by $100 million over the next 30 years? Let’s not forget that $100 million is the same figure, roughly speaking, associated with construction of a new high school. It’s also important not to overstate the wondrous lightness of the sales tax. The sales tax does offer some unique advantages as a financing mechanism for school capital improvements — the share paid by out-of-towners passing through Halifax is an obvious plus — but a 1-cent sales tax hike will leave bite marks just as surely as a property tax increase would. Voters should get credit for understanding this was a hefty tax increase on a scale necessary to address a substandard, undeniably embarrassing high school, and then going ahead and voting for it anyway.

The proper role of the elected representative in our system of democracy is an old and ongoing debate. Should public officials seek to divine the will of the people and slavishly carry out their demands? Or should elected officials view their ascension to office as a statement of faith, a public trust in their ability to make wise decisions upon considering all the facts at hand? Even the best informed members of the public will lack a full understanding of the pros and cons that county supervisors and school trustees must weigh with any issue, much less one as momentous as the path forward for HCHS. Voters certainly have a right to demand integrity, diligence and open-mindedness from their chosen representatives. And it’s to the credit of both the School Board and Board of Supervisors that its members have upheld this obligation in laying the groundwork for a massive overhaul of the high school, acting publicly and deliberately.

They’ve sought — and won — voter consent for a major tax increase. They’ve solicited expert advice on what the county should do next. The School Board hired a very reputable architectural firm, the Board of Supervisors did the same, and both architects came back with the same basic recommendation: HCHS as it currently exists is not a suitable learning environment for our children, and it’ll take a massive investment (the question of renovation or new construction aside) to fix this problem. The story so far, by the way, is practically the opposite of how the courthouse was handled under a previous group of county supervisors (with some overlap.) The school debate may be the result of hard-earned lessons, but there it is.

To all of the candidates who won Tuesday: What happened on Election Day was a one-of-a-kind event. Please do not dismiss the clear upshot of the sales tax referendum — the public understands that the manifest, serious defects of HCHS must be fixed. We just voted for a long-term solution to an expensive problem with the expectation that our leadership would make wise, long-term choices for the good of Halifax County. Before anyone gets a notion in their minds to shortchange this outcome by reflexively opting for a cheap fix, please remember this is exactly what voters could have decided to do on their own, and they emphatically chose not to.

It’s the first, last and prime takeaway from Election Day 2019.

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