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Take it away / August 01, 2019
The “5 Takeaways” format seems to be popular with the pundits these days, so let’s stick with that number in discussing the Halifax County Board of Supervisors’ “second opinion” study of Halifax County High School and set aside the 95 other observations we could make at this time .....

#1: Cheapskates should be disappointed with the report the Board’s architectural firm has produced. OWPR Architects and Engineers, based in Blacksburg, was handed an implicit task by supervisors: see if there’s a low-cost way to upgrade HCHS, short of building a new school as the School Board wants. (The explicit assignment was for OWPR to assess the findings of Moseley Architects, which has advised trustees on options for the high school.) The good news is that OWPR has come back with a solid product. The bad news? The renovation plan they suggest is somewhat less expensive than building a new facility, but it ain’t cheap, unless $73.3 million strikes you as an inconsequential sum.

So much for the notion — expressed many places, including (more or less) in a Viewpoint letter today by Jack Dunavant of Halifax, — that HCHS can be spruced up through a combo of power washing, paint rollers, truckloads of carpeting and jackleg repairs. OWPR, like others before them, minced few words about the fundamental and deep-seated flaws of the high school, faulting its “cold and institutional look that does not reflect the energy and spirit of the school community” and observing that it “presents many obstacles to ... a modern 21st century learning environment.” This is not a building, at least in any form resembling its current state, that Halifax County wants to present to the world over the next three or four decades.

#2: OWPR has produced a quality study, but not one that’s beyond criticism. One of the great virtues of the firm’s “second opinion” review is its modesty. As OWPR notes, the School Board and Board of Supervisors now have two studies in hand, outlining “three scenarios” for HCHS that each have their “pros and cons.” Each of these scenarios “are viable options,” OWPR writes. Their solution is to save as much as of the existing facility as possible, in the hope of driving down the costs of modernizing HCHS. Fine, but let’s be attuned to the downsides of such an approach.

For instance: like Moseley Architects before them, the OWPR team latched onto the problem of the high school’s cavernous lobby, which is a school security nightmare if nothing else. (Arguably, the lobby also contributes to the chaotic feel of the high school day, although you could also argue that it’s a communal space that fosters togetherness.) Whatever your feelings on the matter, the fix proposed by OWPR is a bit weird — a “glass enclosed Forum within the vast commons/lobby area,” huh? — and definitely not very well fleshed out in the firm’s report. Another questionable recommendation, of course, is replacing the school building’s brick exterior with aluminum siding. Aluminum siding systems are quality building products, but you gotta ask yourself — again — if that’s the image of Halifax County High School we want to present to the world.

#3: Cost and value are not equivalent. Another bullet point in favor of OWPR’s report: it concedes the point, expressed elsewhere over and again, that renovation probably isn’t worth the trouble if the expense is around 75 percent of what it would take to construct a new building. The math is straightforward: we can spend $73 million to add 30, 35, maybe 40 years of new life to HCHS — giving us a building that will be eighty years old at the end of its useful lifespan, to take the optimist’s view — or we can spend $90-$95 million on an all-new facility that will last 50 years. The math only becomes a little fuzzy if you seriously believe HCHS can endure eight decades of wear and tear such as only teenagers can dish out. That’s highly optimistic!

I’m not an engineer or a builder, so don’t look to me for any particular insights, but I do know how to read and do (a little) arithmetic. From that, I’ve yet to see a great explanation for why we should spend 20 percent less for a construction job and get 30 percent less of a finished product in return, compared to if we had only gone ahead and done the job right in the first place. And let’s be clear: no renovation project will rid the high school of all of its myriad problems.

#4. The most vexing part of renovation is that it’ll leave a high school building that’s way, way too big. You hear it all the time: Halifax County is losing population and student enrollment, so why bother undertaking any substantial and costly work to the high school? This is self-defeating logic, a spiraling path to oblivion, and such an approach will probably cost everyone more than it would save in the final analysis. But this doesn’t mean Halifax County shouldn’t want to have a high school that’s a better fit for a smaller student enrollment. The population loss has already happened; it’s the building footprint that hasn’t kept up.

When Virginia Commonwealth University Health System purchased the community hospital in the Town of South Hill, it acquired a badly outdated facility and immediately started making plans to replace it. Today South Hill has a spectacular new hospital that already has developed into a magnet for economic growth. You know what else VCU’s hospital is? Smaller than the one it replaced, at least in terms of patient beds. Right-sizing a facility to meet a community’s needs is generally an excellent value proposition. And prominent among the deficiencies of OWPR’s report — which you can’t really lay at the firm’s doorstep, since they were operating on a tight timetable — is that there’s no cost analysis on the difference between operating a 313,000 square foot facility (the current building size) and a school that’s 263,000 square feet, as Moseley Architects has proposed. One thing you can safely assume: the dollars involved ain’t zero.

#5: It’s pretty ridiculous that we’re even having this discussion less than three weeks out from the deadline for getting a sales tax referendum on the ballot. The Board of Supervisors is plainly headed towards a decision to adopt “construction or renovation” as the relevant language of the November sales tax initiative. The deadline to place the question on the ballot is Aug. 16. (By now there’s probably little need to repeat the basic info about the voter referendum, but it’ll authorize a 1 percent local sales tax as the best way to pay for upgrading the high school without the burden falling exclusively on those who pay county property taxes. Everyone would pay the sales tax, including folks just passing through Halifax County after stopping off to buy something at Walmart or Sheetz. The local sales tax also wouldn’t apply to groceries or prescription drugs, by the way.) Of course, a tax is still a tax, which means the usual suspects are sure to oppose it. The existential question before the Board of Supervisors is straightforward: do the prospects for passing the referendum improve by not saying exactly how the money will be spent — construction or renovation? — and how will the board’s decision wear over the next three-plus months, when Nov. 5 finally gets here?

It’s an extremely tough question and I don’t fault anyone for coming to a conclusion that’s different from mine, but it’s probably fair to say two considerations will weigh on the minds of voters above most others. First, there’s the perception (reality is the better word) of disarray among supervisors and trustees, and second, it’s going to be difficult to get over the county’s less-than-flawless handling of the courthouse renovation project. Say what you will about where the fault lies in the first instance, the second is entirely on the Board of Supervisors. And why and how did supervisors botch the politics of the courthouse? The answers are many, but chief among the mistakes was shunning outside input (thanks, Jim Halasz) and thinking that way too much of the work could be accomplished on the cheap. Remember, the previous board was prepared to pursue the genius plan of renovating the 100-year-old Commonwealth’s Attorney’s building, a three-story brick building that didn’t require the services of the Big Bad Wolf to expose as unsalvageable.

The logic behind the sales tax is strong enough that everyone should support it regardless of whether the players in this drama get their act together or not. No one’s argument is provably better than anyone else’s, since we won’t know the fate of the sales tax referendum until Nov. 5 arrives. But by almost any other metric that should count — educational value, community pride and opportunity for renewal, and yes, good ol’ fashioned bang for the buck — building a new high school is clearly preferable to trying to retrofit the old one as “a modern 21st century learning environment.” We already know how the no-new-tax crowd will vote in November. Perhaps the best way to get the sales tax referendum over the hump is to come up with the best choice to present to everyone else?

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