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New directions / May 23, 2018
Okay, I have something to say about the proposed design of Mecklenburg County’s consolidated school complex: there’s one element of the plan that people gave up for dead as soon as the cost estimate hit light of day, but this is regrettable: I am referring, of course, to the idea of building a $10.5 million aquatics center. Fuggetaboutit, right? Before the idea disappears entirely into the ether, hear me out in its defense.

Mecklenburg County has a problem: a mismatch between its wondrous lakes and the number of places where a child can safely go to learn how to swim. Outside of a few private pools, there are no easy options available to kids other than the lakes themselves. In this light, it’s surprising that we don’t have more drownings every summer season, but this could be the result of people never taking to the water in the first place because swimming is just not something they’re comfortable doing. As a result, we may be forgoing the opportunity to get kids outside and enjoying a little exercise and fun in the water. Either way, the picture is less than optimal.

The architects who are designing Mecklenburg’s new middle school/high school complex have proposed two options: a $113 million “basic” school and a $135 million plan with some extras, the aquatics center being the most expensive among them. (The full-featured design also includes the working farm that supervisors expressly asked to be included with the new school, an excellent plan which should not be abandoned under any circumstances.) Swimming pools are not cheap, but lots of things that aren’t cheap get built anyway because they are deemed to deliver significant value to justify the expenditure.

The aquatics center fits squarely into this rationale. There is no other entity in this county — not the Town of South Hill, not Microsoft, not the YMCA, not Virginia State Parks — that is either capable or willing to step up and fill a longstanding need in the community. We talk about the importance of giving young people outlets for their boundless energies and doing more to attract young families to the area, but when money-instead-of-mouth time rolls around the only sound you hear on this subject is crickets. Ten million dollars over a 40-year building lifespan is not an unreasonable price for establishing a community asset that would be available to every kid in Mecklenburg County. Heck, done right, a school pool could be managed in conjunction with the YMCA or made available to an array of outside groups. Let’s at least keep our minds open to the possibilities, is that too much to ask?

Oh, right: despite what appears to be unstoppable momentum in favor of building the new school, the Board of Supervisors and School Board can’t seem to get on the same page in terms of the facility’s design. Supervisors are kvetching about the $113 million price tag — forget about the $135 million proposal, with the ag barn, an auditorium big enough to hold the middle school student population, swimming pool, etc. — and instead they’re demanding that the architects deliver a design at or below $100 million. The problem with this is that by the time you subtract the engineering and design costs, plus the money that must be spent on the school’s Baskerville location (so much infrastructure to run out to the countryside) you’re left with only about $77 million for construction of the facility itself. It’s not enough money, and while the supervisors probably realize this, what they’re saying out in the open on the subject is something else. They should just come clean on the necessity of spending more money and go forward from there.

In order to bring us to the verge of actually fixing the most disgraceful aspect of Mecklenburg County — its Truman and Eisenhower-era secondary schools — the powers-that-be on both boards struck a delicate deal on the site location, to placate intra-county interests from Buffalo Junction to Bracey. The non-building costs associated with this site at the corner of U.S. 58 and Route 4 are about $8 million, at a minimum, which is not far off the price tag for what supervisors will surely argue is the most frivolous part of the architect’s design, the aforementioned aquatics center. Which naturally begs the question: Which costs are frivolous and which are simply sound ideas? The Baskerville school location is a reasonable political accommodation, even if it adds millions to the final bill. Is it not also reasonable to spend extra money up front to create and complete a school facility that will be enduringly popular and high-utility over the span of the next 40 years?

The new school complex represents a once-in-a-generation investment with the potential to bind Mecklenburg together as a true community. Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. Supervisors demanded a single school complex rather than two or even four new schools to replace the decrepit Bluestone and Park View buildings mostly due to the bottom-line cost considerations, but also out of a palpable desire to create an institution that the entire county could rally around. That goal will be a lot more achievable if supervisors do us a favor and resist the impulse to scrimp on every extra feature that the architects are proposing. These amenities will be popular over time — they’ll make a difference in the way the school is perceived and accepted. That level of community acceptance is by no means guaranteed simply because kids go to a school where the walls are all-new. It’s what inside that counts.

The Board of Supervisors has already lopped tens of millions of dollars off on the cost of the new school by rejecting the most expensive footprint options. It’s high time for the board to go in the opposite direction and build a complex that students, families and members of the community will enjoy — a lot. Ten years from now, no one will remember the heroic strivings of the Board of Supervisors to minimize the planning and engineering budget and structure the county’s debt service obligations. Don’t get me wrong, all of this stuff is very important. But building a top-notch facility is a whole lot more important. If an aquatics center seems like a ridiculous ask, that’s only because our leaders have lost track of the need from time to time to come up for air.

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