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Readers write in / September 26, 2019
My my, we do love letters, and today's Viewpoint in the print edition of the News & Record is chockful of reader takes on the Nov. 5 sales tax referendum. This seems like a good time to invite everyone to weigh in — pro and con. Your friendly local newspaper exists in part as a platform for readers to sound off on the issues of the day, and guess what: you can blather on Facebook and no one cares, but write a letter to the editor and your argument, if well stated, will resonate in ways that might surprise. Seriously. there’s research to back up the fact that people give real weight to letters to the editors by friends and acquaintances that run in their local newspaper. I couldn't do this in the print version of this column, but the research can be sampled here and here and here and ....

At the bottom of this page, you’ll find letters on the referendum by Beth Talley, Jack Dunavant, Wayne Stanfield and John Woody. I agree with three of the four letter writers in their support of the proposed 1-cent sales tax, and I’m on record in favor of building a new high school rather than trying to renovate the one we have. So consider the source. Disclaimers out of the way, I’ve also sat through a lot of meetings where the topic of the high school has been discussed, and some knowledge of the facts does tend to rub off in such circumstances. Plus, a person will have views. Lots of views. So let’s bounce mine off today’s batch of Viewpoint writers:

» First up, Beth Talley Layne. If the name isn’t familiar, Beth’s an English teacher at HCHS. She’s also a friend. In this capacity, I can confidently state that Beth is pretty darn awesome, and if the world were run by the likes of Beth Layne instead of the reigning batch of knuckleheads we’re stuck with, the world would be a much better place. Did I mention the part about Beth being a friend? I do tend to forget stuff some days.

Beth’s arguments (shared by fellow educators who signed onto the letter) are thoroughly valid and I hope everyone will take them to heart on Nov. 5. I would like to add a few points, however, that teachers themselves perhaps are uncomfortable making.

First, when people talk about creating a 21st century learning environment, they’re largely referring to the shift from an instructional style that places the teacher at the chalkboard, yakking away, to one where student-teacher collaboration and hands-on learning are built into the daily routine. (Okay, so no researcher would actually state the matter this way, but you get the idea.)

The quality of a facility is not unimportant in this educational scheme, because the classroom and building layout and certainly the non-obsolescence of stuff like lab equipment tangibly affect a learning environment.

People may say that facilities have no impact on the quality of a school, but they’re wrong. You know what? You don’t even have to dig up research on this one. Just look at high-quality school divisions in places like Northern Virginia, the Research Triangle and elsewhere. Sure, they’ve got money and we don’t, but Northern Virginia could spend a lot more of its wealth trying to solve its disastrous traffic issues, at the expense of building modern school facilities, and yet they do nothing of the sort. Why? Because the citizenry wouldn’t put up with sending their kids to disgraceful school facilities, and neither should we.

The sales tax gives us a nearly-painless way of drumming up revenue (much of it from outside of Halifax County) to create a state-of-the-art high school, new or renovated, for our children and (hopefully) our children’s children to benefit from. We’d be nuts not to seize the opportunity.

Second point about facilities and the learning environment: let’s not overlook the obvious point that it’s simply easier to convince good teachers to come work in a nice building rather than one with very little interior natural light, mottled carpeting and dim surfaces, and enough grime to inspire a TV marketing campaign for the latest cleaning product on aisle seven at Food Lion. Beth Layne is a wonderful English teacher and a local gal and we’re very lucky to her working in HCPS, but Halifax County can’t count on replenishing its teaching ranks forever with folks willing to put up with substandard conditions at the high school because they just so happen to like living here. Hope is not a plan.

Wayne Stanfield, in his letter, and John Woody, in his, also make excellent points, none more important than Stanfield’s observation that the sales tax is a truly easy burden to bear. I bet I’ll lose more money in the coming year by walking out of Food Lion and leaving random bags of groceries behind than I’ll pay on the 1-cent sales tax. (This would be a fine time to point out that the sales tax, if enacted, won’t apply to groceries or medications. Also, if you see me walking out of Food Lion and there’s a stray bag left at the checkout, please say something.) We’ve all heard the saying, “Many hands make light work.” Having everyone pay a little bit here and there similarly makes for a light burden.

Finally, Jack Dunavant ... also a friend, just more exasperating than most. My esteem for Jack is longstanding and profound, but boy, he ought to take his cherrypicking skills and put migrant farm laborers out of work. (Funny how no one actually ever wants to do this.) In his letter, Dunavant offers a plan for SOLVING OUR HIGH SCHOOL PROBLEMS FOR UNDER $50 MILLION, and if you find the screaming all-caps treatment convincing, then I don’t suppose anything I have to say on the subject will make much of an impression.

But since Dunavant draws his argument from the presentation made by architect Randy Jones of OWPR, the firm which was hired by the Board of Supervisors to provide “a second opinion” on the high school, let’s at least review what Jones told the supervisors. Dunavant’s depiction of his presentation isn’t exactly wrong, but it is misleading — true, Jones noted that HCHS doesn’t have load-bearing walls and hence there’s no risk of structural failure, but this is a far cry from Dunavant’s assertion (which you can find in his letter below) that this represents “state of the art construction even today.” LOL as the kids would say. Having a roof and walls on a building also represents state of the art construction, just like having four wheels on a car is state of the art auto design, although I guess these things can always change.

Here is a fair summary, in five short paragraphs, of what Jones told supervisors:

» You have a difficult choice on your hands in deciding whether to build a new school or renovate the current one, as either option will be expensive;

» You’ll save some money by renovating, but long-term, you’ll receive less value for your money because a new school facility will last longer.

» A renovation plan will not overcome all the problems of the existing facility, and if you decide to go forward with a $73 million overhaul, you need to come to terms with that.

» It would be easier to renovate a school built in the 1950s or 1960s than one built in the late ‘70s, because the construction and design standards of the day were awful. (Jones drew an analogy between HCHS and a prison. I am not making this up.)

» With a thoroughgoing renovation or new school, Halifax County will provide a modern learning environment for students and teachers, one with tangible impact on the quality of learning. Halifax County High School as it now stands is not a desirable nor really even a suitable learning environment.

That’s it. Folks can argue around this core issue by roping in topics such as school discipline and whatnot —important, but not germane to the question at hand unless one’s answer is always gonna be “NO” — and all the misdirection and obfuscation doesn’t change the fact that we truly do face a generational choice this November. If the sales tax referendum fails, Halifax County will have the same problems tomorrow that it has today, with only painful avenues for finding its way towards a better future. But enough of my POV; go read the letters from others, and choose wisely, as they say in the movies.

And by the way, do keep those letters coming.


Here is today's Viewpoint on the subject of the sales tax referendum, starting with the letter to the editor by Beth Layne and fellow teachers:

Now is the time

Dear Viewpoint:
“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country” is a phrase often erroneously attributed to Patrick Henry. The phrase was actually the brainchild of Charles E. Weller, a typing teacher, who first coined the words in 1889. However, now is the time for all good Halifax County people to come to the aid of their county. On November 5, we have been given the unique opportunity to impact the rest of this century by voting Yes to the local sales tax option in order to address our school facilities upgrades.

It has been my honor and privilege to teach children in Halifax County Schools for the last 38 years. I have delighted in watching our students go on to become successful farmers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, business, military, and government leaders, nurses, counselors, and even one delegate to the Virginia General Assembly. In January of this year, that delegate, James Edmunds, proposed and guided the passing of House Bill 1634, which gave Halifax County the power to levy a 1% increase in the state sales tax in order to fund school improvement. Delegate Edmunds, with the best interests of our students and taxpayers in his mind and heart, realized that we could minimize the need to impact real estate taxes by adding a tiny percentage to the proportional sales tax.

Over the proposed 30-year period, this tax will generate over $100 million dollars exclusively for the upgrade of educational facilities in Halifax County. One of the beauties of House Bill 1634 is that 20% of that total will come from people outside of Halifax County. According to data provided by the United States Travel Association last week, in 2018, tourism revenue for the county topped 52 million dollars. While the visitors enjoy our beautiful county, they will also help provide a good portion of the money we need to improve our schools.

Saying Yes on November 5 signals our belief in the future of our county and especially of our children. In order to prepare them for success in a rapidly changing workplace, we must provide our students with a modernized, safe learning environment that inspires pride and innovation. County educational leaders constantly study and encourage teachers to employ best practices within their classrooms. They work with local businesses and higher education leaders to define skill sets that are essential for workforce readiness as well as higher academic preparation. Our schools must be updated to include equipment and learning spaces to implement these best practices.

I believe in the ability of our students to be world-ready world changers. They deserve the best facilities and instructional programs that we as citizens can provide for them. In order to attract and maintain employers and professionals to Halifax County, we must upgrade our educational facilities both within and without. Demonstrate your belief in the positive potential of Halifax County by voting Yes on November 5. Now is the time.

Beth Layne, HCHS English Teacher
Supported by: Colleen Barnes, Leslie Bohanon, Caren Dejarnette, Devin Hall, Amy Midkiff, Melissa Peacock, David Riddle, Gregory Scott, Domonic Stephens and Melanie Saunders

Simple math

Dear Viewpoint:
In just over a month, Halifax County voters have a chance to vote on the most important single issue on a ballot in years, raising the sales tax by 1 penny. The fact that the initiative is on the ballot at all is extraordinary, since it took a lot of effort to have the General Assembly give us this chance.

This 1-cent will be used only to pay for the much-needed new high school. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we will have to build a new high school sooner rather than later. Had we done it 5 years ago, it would have cost 30% less than it will next year. If we wait another 5 years, it will cost 30% more than next year.

The choice is very simple really. Citizens can vote on a 1-cent sales tax increase, or in the next 5 years, real estate taxes will need to go up about 30-cents per hundred to cover the same expenditure. The math is really very simple to do.

Let’s put this is simple terms. First, everyone who passes through Halifax County and spends money will pay 1-cent towards our school. Those out-of-towners won’t pay real estate tax though.
For us who live here, lets look at the impact. If you earn $50,000 a year and spend every penny in Halifax County, the 1-cent will cost you $500. Since we know that we don’t do that, the cost will actually be much less. On the other hand, if you own a nice house that has an assessed value of $150,000, your real estate taxes will go up by $450, but the out-of-towners won’t pay a penny of it.
Even better, look at it this way, you go to your favorite burger restaurant and by a meal for a family of four for $25. The tax increase will cost you 25 cents. Or you go buy a new suit from your local store and pay $250 for it, the tax increase will be $2.50.

You get the point, a 1-cent sales tax increase will never be noticed and in 10 years, we will have paid for a new high school and raised the standard of education in our county so that all those doctors and plant managers won’t feel obligated to live in North Carolina because of our poor schools.

So, let’s vote YES on the sale tax referendum on November 5.

Wayne Stanfield

An alternative plan

Dear Viewpoint:

Randy Jones, CEO of OWPR Architects made the following observations about our high school: The building is supported by steel beams and columns anchored in reinforced concrete footings all of which appear in good condition and there are no bearing walls in the building.

That is state of the art construction even today and very similar to what we see going up on Courthouse square. We are most fortunate to have it. It means that entire wings and floors can either be closed or removed entirely. Demolition is costly so it would be wise to mothball and preserve space for future growth when and if needed.

Mr. Jones also made the following observations: 1.There are no mold problems in the building. 2. A new building would also require many exits. 3. The building has a new roof with a 30-year guarantee. (I can tell you from past experience that it will last 50 years with proper maintenance.) 4. The school was not built in a swamp (as was falsely claimed by others.) In summary: there is nothing wrong with that building that cannot be fixed with a sensible refurbishing.

Proponents of a new school say that we have only two choices: Either build a new school for $100 million or remodel the old building for $70 million. That is a very misleading statement. I guarantee that we can remodel our existing school and build a new stadium that will last another 50 years for less than $50 million dollars if we set that as our goal. I will offer my services free of charge to help in that regard.

Now, there are some who say the internal problems regarding discipline and conduct in our school have nothing to do with building a new school — we beg to differ. How can the School Board in good faith ask the taxpayers of this financially challenged county to spend $50 million or $100 million dollars on a new high school before correcting the shameful conditions that exist there? That is putting the cart before the horse. We do not think any money should be spent on our schools until the problems with respect, discipline, profanity, cell phones and maintenance are addressed — add to that fights and fear to use the bathrooms because of bullying and drug use — all of which is totally unacceptable! We can do better and we MUSTdo better or this county will sink further into the mire of poverty and crime.

I expressed concerns about school disciplinary problems and profanity at a school board meeting in June and offered to help in solving those problems; to date I have heard nothing.

My July 29 letter to the editor about school problems seems to have fallen on deaf ears at the school board and all we hear is, “We need $100,000,000 for a new high school.” That letter, by the way, generated hundreds of supporting calls and emails including one from a lady in Monterey, California who called to say, “Thank you” and to wish us well.

Six weeks ago, I invited our school superintendent to have lunch with me and talk about these issues and was given a polite, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” To date I have heard nothing.

The problems in our schools are too important to our young people and the future of this county to be swept under the rug, and We the People will not sit idly by and allow that happen — we’re all in on this one! I sincerely hope that Dr. Lineburg and the School Board are up to the task; and again, we will work with all concerned to correct the situation. However, if need be, we will work diligently to replace those who are content with the status quo. We’ve been down this road before and have a proven track record of getting people to the polls to replace irresponsible officials who ignored the will of the people.

We need to come together as a community and solve these problems and we most definitely do not need any more decisions made behind closed doors. All issues should be objectively laid out before the public prior to making any decisions. There is no rush to build a new school now. We need to study all possibilities and make wise decisions. J. T. Davis has suggested the possibility of year-round schools. They seem to save a lot money and many communities embrace them. The city of Hopewell switched this year and it seems to be very popular.

Problems are not a reason for despair, they occur in everyday life and must be met head-on. Problems present opportunities and we have many good people in our organization who are willing to help solve our school problems — and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to do it. There are many examples to choose from, however, the most successful begin with getting the students involved; they know what’s going on, they don’t like it and they can best help solve the problems. Here is a great model that has a proven track record: Put the entire senior class in charge of conduct and discipline in the school. Form a committee of selected officers who work with an appointed guidance counselor and the principal to handle all student misconduct problems. It works elsewhere and it can put an end to fights and bullying.

We can turn our school around and make it a magnet that attracts good students instead of running them away. It would be a source of pride for the entire county and we pledge our 100% support in this effort. If this comes to pass I don’t envision a great deal of opposition to building a new high school in the near future.

Jack Dunavant, Chairman, We the People of Virginia, Inc.

Get registered, and vote

Dear Viewpoint:

I encourage all Halifax County voters to vote yes on the Halifax education referendum on November 5, 2019. If you aren’t registered go the registrar’s office in Halifax and get registered — you have until October 13, 2019. We need a new high school for the children of Halifax County. It makes no sense to renovate the old school when the cost of a new school is almost the same. The old school is not competitive with nearby counties. It will cost $30 million to replace the HVAC system alone; a new school will meet the technology education needs of our children. Technology is moving fast and we need new education materials and equipment to keep up.

A new school would also encourage businesses to locate here. A new school would save several thousands of dollars in utility and operations costs. The state law authorizing the referendum requires all funds to be dedicated for school construction. This not about me or you, this for the future of our children of Halifax County. We want the best for them, and they deserve the best. Go out and vote, and encourage your friends to vote for the education referendum on November 5, 2019.

John Woody
South Boston

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