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Opportunity cost / April 04, 2019
Former Halifax County supervisor Barry Bank weighs in with a Viewpoint letter today offering his take on the great high school debate, and his piece brings to mind a couple of thoughts. One, Bank’s copious prose makes me think I might someday be mistaken for a scribbler of limericks, or perhaps haiku; and two, his basic argument can be summed up in four words, HALIFAX COUNTY: DROP DEAD. I suppose you could tack on the statement, “And let’s scarf up all the retiree dollars we possibly can before Halifax buys the farm.”

I realize this sounds harsh, and you owe it to yourself to read Bank’s letter, which actually does a fine job of laying out the pessimist’s case for why it’s folly to replace Halifax County High School at a cost of $100 million or, for that matter, any significant sum of money at all. The county is shedding population, past promises of economic revitalization have floundered, and demographic trends point to an aging community with an ever-lessening need to plow big bucks into school facilities. The description is accurate enough, but the prescriptive part is where I part company with Barry (who, by way of a disclaimer, I’ve known for a long time, certainly long enough to know he’s a straight shooter if nothing else.) Let’s give the devil and Barry Bank their due: negativism aside, no one has exactly come up with a great solution for turning around America’s rural communities as they (we) fall further and further behind thriving urban clusters. It’s unlikely Halifax County can buck the trend simply by building a new high school, no matter how well the project is conceived and executed, and if the main goal is minimizing costs to a graying cohort of taxpayers, there’s nothing in Bank’s letter to particularly take exception with.

Recent weeks have brought forth a string of letters from readers calling into question the School Board’s plans for a replacement high school. The trustees have drawn on the recommendations of Moseley Architects: the options are building a $99 million new high school (all cost figures are estimates), or spending $88 million for a wholesale makeover of the existing HCHS facility. Probably the only consensus that exists at this point is that HCHS is an embarrassment in its current state. What we should do about this problem is where we part company: some believe the building can be fixed with a good power-washing and some superficial upgrades, and others (like me) believe the late ‘70s-era facility was misbegotten from the start, and not subject to remedy if the goal is to provide a first-rate environment for student learning. (“First-rate” does not translate to “lavish” or “luxurious,” so let’s run a spear through that red herring right now.)

As far as the School Board’s plans are concerned, we’re living in an age where expertise, experience and knowledge of subject matter have never counted for less, and Moseley, a firm with an excellent reputation, has put forth a set of proposals that’s taking flak from all directions. That’s why it’s a good thing the Board of Supervisors will hire its own firm to review and evaluate Moseley’s work; the process may or may not produce tangible changes to the plan on the table, but it does satisfy an understandable desire for a second opinion. The supervisors must hurry, though, because the timetable for setting a November sales tax referendum to finance school construction is growing short.

There is so much territory to cover in the HCHS debate that it’s hard to make a coherent argument and not go on and on with the details — Bank gives the topic a good whack, and before him, Kathy Fraley (running for School Board in ED-1) and George Hayes (owner of South Boston True Value, up the street from the N&R’s office, and an excellent place to buy a lawn tractor, by the way) submitted letters to this newspaper that presented many valid points. Fraley also spoke at a recent meeting of the Board of Supervisors and made a remark that’s become a mantra of sorts for those opposed to building a new high school: “We don’t have the plans, we don’t have the money, we only have a dream.”

That’s a sweeping statement, and there’s one obvious problem with it: dreams do not exist apart from reality, and if you want to question the former then you ought to be fair and take stock of the latter as well. Barry Bank’s letter goes on at length about all the things we can’t afford to do as a community — i.e., build a new HCHS — without any acknowledgment whatsoever that inaction carries a cost, too, just as surely as the tax bite to pay for a school upgrade. As a county supervisor, Bank was an incessant (some would say irksome) critic of the Industrial Development Authority and, really, any other entity that put forward ideas at a non-zero cost for revitalizing the local economy. Bank knows how to aim low: he has suggested bringing in food processing plants (which would probably be fine in the right areas) and making a play for retirees to move into Halifax County by keeping tax rates ultra-low. (How Perdue factories and retirement communities are supposed to fit together in a coherent package is a question neither asked nor answered.)

The upshot is clear: let’s tamp down on expectations and ratchet back spending, and in the course of doing so say bye-bye to Halifax County’s future as viable community. Bank might not agree with this latter characterization, of course, but that’s where his recommended course of action leads: to a population that is forever aging and shrinking, with upward drivers of community quality of life becoming fewer and farther apart, leaving the costs of maintaining the status quo to be borne by fewer and fewer people, all of whom, again, are growing older. (Go back to the conversation two weeks ago on rescue squad funding if you think the school budget is the only source of fiscal strain on Halifax County local government.) There’s no end point to scenarios like these: there’s only a road sloping downhill as far as the eye can see.

A new school may not be a panacea. But a replacement HCHS would not nearly be the crushing burden that opponents make out. For one thing — and let’s be clear about this — Halifax County is a low-tax community, and it will continue to be so even if we kick out the jams on a new school building. Supervisors voted Monday night to raise the real estate tax by two cents, which brought howls from the usual suspects but really is more of a yawner. Two weeks ago in this space, we reviewed the pocketbook impact of a penny increase in the real estate tax rate: $10 for the owner of a $100,000 home or farm. Monday night, the Board of Supervisors had the audacity to hit up $100,000 homeowners for an extra $20 a year. The horror! By the way, a $100,000 home is a higher-than-average valuation in Halifax County.

With a revised levy of 50 cents per $100, Halifax still will feature a lower rate than every locality around us, save for Mecklenburg County where the real estate tax is 42 cents. You really can’t make valid comparisons to Mecklenburg, however, insofar as our neighbors to the east harnessed an economic unicorn in the form of the Microsoft data center, and Lord only knows how much local tax revenue that little pony pumps out. (Sen. Frank Ruff, in a recent column, pegged Microsoft’s investment in Boydton at $3 billion, which would be roughly equal to the entire tax-assessed value of all other real estate in Mecklenburg.)

Pittsylvania County is a fine place to look if you’re searching for an example of a community that has fared better economically than Halifax: its tax rate is 62 cents, 12 cents higher than our own. Campbell County is one of the most politically conservative areas of the Commonwealth, and its real estate tax is 52 cents. The People’s Republic of Charlotte County? 53 cents. Together with the proposed 1-cent local sales tax, Halifax is looking at a significant bump in tax collections to fund a new high school, but nothing contemplated here is unreasonable nor beyond our means. If a slightly higher tax environment is what it takes to break out of a slump and build a better future for ourselves, we’d be would be foolish to not make the change.

We need a much-improved HCHS not so we can position ourselves as a candidate for the next Microsoft — that would be nice, but business prospects generally seem to immune to such blandishments — but because a new high school would be an enormous boon for the county, and especially for our kids. It’s hard to put a price tag on everything under the sun, but high-quality K-12 schools yield benefits that far exceed the understanding of bean counters. On that note, at a recent meeting of one of our local governing bodies, a speaker in the audience brought up a blast from the past: the 2012 school efficiency review, conducted by Prismatic, the School Board’s consulting firm at the time. It’s been years since I even thought about that study (it’s been gathering dust on my computer hard drive) so I called it up and did a quick skim. Buried deep on page 155 (out of total of 486) was an idea for which, according to Prismatic, “the potential annual savings could be a conservative $2,750,000.” Just to hit the pause button for a second, $2.8 million on top of successful sales referendum would be nearly enough alone to pay for an all-new high school. So what was this amazing plan to save $2.8 million annually? Close two elementary schools, Prismatic said; the specific example they gave was closure of Sydnor Jennings Elementary, plus a second low-enrollment school to be identified.

It’s ironic that Sydnor Jennings lies in the district of School Board candidate Kathy Fraley, who has ventured the opinion that we don’t have a plan for HCHS, only a dream. Actually, we do have a plan, it’s called the plan currently in place, and it’s not free and the money can, in theory, be moved around to make room for other, higher priority plans. But you know what? I don’t support closing Sydnor Jennings and leaving Nathalie without a community school to call its own, nor would I support doing anything similar in Clays Mill or Meadville or other low-population areas of the county without at least trying to provide something new and better in their place. As it stands, we have two schools in South Boston that serve the entire county population, and one of them is a mess. We need to fix that. Letters to the editor can run long and the newspaper editor might run on longer still, but none of it changes the fact we have a generational challenge to meet head-on in replacing our subpar high school. It would behoove us to accept this fact and go forward from there.

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