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Questions to ask / August 01, 2019

Dear Viewpoint:

I would like to share my thoughts on building a new Halifax County High School. And, yes, it would be nice to have a brand-new school, however, as with any large purchase, we need to answer several pertinent questions: 1. Do we need it; 2. Can we afford it; 3. Will it improve the end product, our students? I toured our high school last fall with our new superintendent and his staff and after much soul searching here are my thoughts on the subject:

1. We’ve been told over and over that the school was built in a swamp and that it is settling. Well, the only settlement I saw was a small wall-crack above a basement doorway that can easily and permanently be repaired by a good engineering firm such as Ram Jack for as little as $10,000. I observed no other building settlement and the good condition of the roads and parking lots do not indicate poor soil underlayment or settlement. The school was not built on a hill but neither was it built in a swamp. Recent tests have shown a relatively high ground water table which would be expected from the record rainfall we’ve had over the past year — but still there is no movement. The water table is high everywhere.

2. The gymnasium and auditorium are both top-notch and would be the envy of many schools. We were told the auditorium needs a new sound system—not a big deal financially. I did notice 20 or more missing arm-rests that are held by two screws and easily repaired. Why weren’t they repaired or replaced? Did anyone ever check them? Parts may even be available on the internet for a few bucks. Unacceptable!! Who’s responsible? Employees should be held accountable and replaced if need be.

3. Daily maintenance, cleaning etc., seemed adequate but general physical maintenance seemed to be very poor. We were not shown the restrooms but students say they’re the pits, harboring drugs and bullies, and many are afraid to use them. That too, is unacceptable. I’ve also heard about carpets covered with chewing gum — they were not shown either. Generally, there seemed to be no pride in maintaining this very valuable publicly owned building.

4. I wholeheartedly support a total redo of our football/soccer/track stadium. From an engineering perspective I’m surprised the stands are still standing.

5. The issues with the original bricks are more cosmetic than structural and no cause for concern.

6. There are certain heating, air and mechanical/electrical issues that need upgrading for sure.

Conclusions: From an engineering perspective I saw nothing that would justify demolition of any part of that building. However, I would make the following recommendations:

1. Perhaps we should turn janitorial services and maintenance over to a private firm that can be held accountable. They’ll fire those who won’t work.

2. I would suggest that a competent local engineering firm be hired to assess all our schools and public buildings on a regular basis, perhaps annually, and make their report public. In the long run, it should save money and better protect “our publicly owned buildings”.

There’s a tried and true old saying that bricks and mortar do not a school make, and that is so true. Let us never forget that our fathers and grandfathers, often called our greatest generation, attended one room schools with a potbellied stove and no running water — and they turned out pretty well. There are many things we should be concerned about other than a shiny new school — and number 1 on our list should be DICSIPLINE!! Most of our school problems can be traced to the lack of DISCIPLINE — that ability to focus one’s thoughts and energies to master life’s tasks and achieve our goals. Discipline is required at all levels to be successful in this world; laborers, brick layers, carpenters and plumbers all must discipline themselves to master their trades. Professions like law, medicine, engineering, and science are referred to as disciplines.

Recently I asked a group of high-schoolers about school discipline and each confirmed that profanity is used in their classrooms daily and teachers do nothing because the administration will not be back them up. Here is what the 2016-2017 Halifax County student/parent handbook says this on page 11 under STANDARDS OF STUDENT CONDUCT: “Students shall not use language, a gesture, or engage in conduct that is vulgar, profane, obscene, or disrupts the teaching or learning environment.” So, there you have it, our administrators give only lip service to school discipline. That is totally unacceptable. I have asked people from other areas who are involved with public education about this and they were dumbfounded. That type of behavior has given Halifax public schools such a bad reputation that many doctors and professional people who work here, send their children to other schools. Some suggest that we’re running a giant babysitting service while others say the inmates are running the prison. I do know that the poor record of our schools is hurting our ability to attract new industry — and the shame of it is that we sitting back and doing nothing about it!! How long are we going to pretend that the shadows on the wall of this Platonic cave are real?

Too many of us have sat back for too long and watched our schools slowly sink into the mire of appeasement and the double-talk of political correctness — we are at fault. We’ve heard the lame old excuse that because so many kids aren’t disciplined at home, it’s useless to try to do it at school. Baloney!! That’s all the more reason to demand it in our schools. Life is not going to be so kind to those who fail to become disciplined as youngsters—ask our Sheriff or our Commonwealth’s Attorney. We owe it to our kids, our teachers and to society as a whole to demand better.

Our school system has failed our teachers for too long. Frequently, when a student is reprimanded, the teacher must face an irate parent ill equipped for meaningful dialogue. That is totally unacceptable; teachers need backup from the central office and the school board. In my day when a kid got paddled at school he got another one when he got home. There was discipline at school and we didn’t have cops in the halls either; the teachers and the principal took care of business—as well they should. We had respect for each other and most assuredly for adults. I cannot ever recall hearing a curse word at school from the first grade all the way through college.

I suspect some of this can be blamed on racial tensions fanned by some so called leaders who thrive in the divide of racial discord. It’s time to get past that kind of nonsense. We need to turn our kids over to competent professional teachers and get out of the way. When your child is disciplined at school, back up the teacher; their job is difficult enough. Why are kids allowed to have and use cell phones at school? We weren’t even allowed to have chewing gum. Take the phones away and have the parent meet with a trained school counselor.

There should be a well-defined system in place to handle troublemakers and to evaluate teachers, too. If a kid is not interested in getting a proper education put him in a reform school of sorts so that others can learn. Don’t allow him to disrupt classes; and If a teacher is incompetent, replace the teacher. Our charge, indeed obligation, is to properly educate our children and prepare them to contribute positively to society.

We have a great deal to offer prospective industries and businesses; an abundance of clean air and water, beautiful wide-open spaces and a core group of wonderful people. However, the perception is that our schools are very poor. Many have left our county because of our schools and many professionals who work here live elsewhere, primarily North Carolina, for the same reason. Our poor schools are the number one obstacle in recruiting good industries with high paying jobs. It’s disgraceful and it needs to be corrected now.

I find it hard to believe that Physics, THE foundation of all engineering and technical sciences, was not offered at Halifax County school for a number of years recently — it was not available for my grandson two years ago. Unbelievable!!! I took it in Halifax County High School many years ago and any high school graduate without it is severely handicapped in college. In the same vein, our high school no longer offers courses in the building trades such as masonry, carpentry, plumbing, electric and is scaling back auto mechanics. Those time-honored trades allow a youngster to find a job right out of high school — with no debt. College is not for everyone: ask the 50% of recent law school graduates, who couldn’t find a job and now work at fast food restaurants in an effort to pay off staggering student-loan debts. We seem to have forgotten that: A great deal of dignity is derived from honest toil.

We have the ability to change all of this and it must begin with a concerted effort by all towards that end. If we do not right this ship we are headed for more poverty and the eventual third world status of gangs, violence and drug infested neighborhoods. The good people of Halifax County need to step up to the plate.

In closing let me say this is in no way a blanket indictment of our many good, loyal and dedicated teachers. Their hands are tied and they are definitely not at fault. Nor can the present situation be blamed on our new superintendent who inherited this mess. I trust that, with our support, he will turn this ship around. The fault lies with past administrations and school boards that lacked the will to fix the system. Are all our teachers good? No, and teachers should be monitored and fairly graded on a regular basis. I’m told that we have an assistant principal for each grade in the high school; they should know the good ones and the bad ones — those who are chronically late and unprepared.

Given the above, how can we possibly justify burdening our taxpayers with a new $100,000,000 high school? I don’t see how we can.

In summary: Before doing anything, it would be wise to study our needs: How many students do we expect in the next 10, 20, and 30 yrs. Would year-around schools be a good fit here? What are our long-range plans and goals? How are we going to pay for it?

I would suggest that a competent local engineering firm be hired to inspect all our schools and public buildings on a regular basis, perhaps annually and make the report public. In the long run, it will save money and protect “our publicly owned buildings.”

I hope our Board of Supervisors will approve no funding for a new school until a complete study has been done and all alternatives considered — including year around schools which I hear are very popular in other places and quite a bit more efficient and economical.

I do not think it wise or prudent to hire some high-powered, high-dollar, out of town architectural/engineering firm to assess our needs when we can shop locally and get better and more economical advice. I know from experience that we have two very fine local engineering firms, B & B Consultants Inc. and Crutchfield and Associates Inc., that are capable of handling any of our design needs. If they need outside advice they know where to go. Shop local; it’s cheaper, you get better service, it helps the local economy and local folks are more involved and accountable.

Our schools are the first line of defense against crime, gangs and the general degradation of our county. Let’s do it right. The rewards are bountiful with better citizens, reduced crime and the prosperity of good jobs and good industry. Isn’t that what we want for our kids?

For those who may not know me: I am not some bitter, old, disgruntled, come-here. Quite the contrary, I have lived here all my life and I have a never-ending love affair with this county and every good soul in it. I only want the best for us.


Jack Dunavant,
Tax Payer,
Professional Engineer and
Lover of Halifax County.

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