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The beat goes on

SoVaNow.com / July 29, 2021
Every once in a while, someone will jump onto our website at SoVaNow.com and post a comment that cuts to the chase with the topics reported on the site. Such as this comment, from one of our regular readers in response to the general reaction to the Crumbling Schools Tour visit last week at Halifax County High School:

It’s amazing how quickly people forget what happened just a few years ago. With the Courthouse it was quoted as a renovation. Well when they started pealing [sic] back layers they discovered that a big part of the structure could not be saved. That was the majority of the cost overruns with that project, people complain about the most. Now you all are advocating doing the exact same thing with that white elephant we call a high school. It had serious cracks in classroom walls when I attended 15 years ago. When they start pealing back those layers what do you think they will find? I can promise you now, if renovation is what is decided you can add a minimum of 25 percent to whatever the cost figures are and I bet that won’t come close to covering it. At that point we will be over the cost of building a new high school but still stuck with the same white elephant with a whole lot of expensive makeup on it.

As they say on the internet, I’ll upvote this comment infinity times. I covered many meetings of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors in which the courthouse renovation project was discussed and voted on. I’ve covered the debate over what to do about Halifax County High School for nearly four years as that topic has heated up. In all this time, the same thing keeps happening — by trying to do everything on the cheap, county leaders drag out solutions and run up costs, saddling the community with building projects that satisfy few and shortchange many.

The outcome with the courthouse is, in fact, a great example of how this phenomenon works, as the commentator above aptly notes. The story is actually worse than depicted. The bulk of courthouse overruns occurred when the general contractor began to renovate the old annex building, then-home to General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The annex building was constructed behind the main courthouse in the early 1960s, making it more than 50 years old at the time. The contractor discovered that concrete pillars and other core components of the building were badly cracked and pocketed, and the courthouse annex, envisioned for a somewhat-expensive renovation, instead had to be torn down and replaced. But that’s actually not the worst of it, not by a long shot. Before all this happened, some members of the Board of Supervisors entertained the cockamamie idea that another structure on the courthouse square — the century-old, ramshackle building that housed the Commonwealth’s Attorney office — also could be successfully renovated. Once the annex work failed, that was the end of any talk about keeping the pitiful prosecutor’s building — thankfully.

Will members of the School Board (and really, the current membership of the Board of Supervisors) step on the same rakes by attempting to renovate the high school?

It’s been years now of intensive discussions about the high school, with lots and lots of meetings in that time: plenty of time, in fact, to hear numerous presentations by architects, engineers and general contractors who have studied the high school and formed independent assessments of what can and should be done with the building. There was Moseley Architects, which produced a 2018 plan for either a new HCHS building or substantial rebuild of the existing facility. There was OWPR Architects and Engineers, hired in 2019 by the Board of Supervisors to provide a second-look assessment of Moseley’s work. Now there’s the School Board’s current advisory team of Branch Builds and RRMM Architects, which together did a fantastic job of renovating the middle school more than a decade ago. Plus there have been other construction teams that have looked at our high school and submitted their own construction proposals.

Not one of these expert voices has indicated a belief that it would be an especially good idea to do an expensive rebuild at HCHS — typically, they offer a rule-of-thumb that if the renovation cost is 75 percent of the new building cost, you’ll experience better value with a new building every time. This is surely true for our high school, which was poorly built during an era of subpar construction standards, and which shows its shoddy nature more glaringly with each passing year. But while a full-scale rebuild (the word “renovation” is often used interchangeably here) could be a viable option, no one versed in school construction thinks it would be a sound idea to simply replace a few systems, slap on a few coats of paint, fire up the powerwashers and call it a day. The cheap-fix fantasy is a spectacularly bad idea that, if we are foolish enough to try it, will haunt Halifax County for generations to come.

None of that kept the School Board’s wrongest member, ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell, from taking up that torch during this week’s meeting on the future of Halifax County Public Schools, held Monday at the middle school. The epitome of McDowell’s knack for utter wrong-titude came in spring of 2020, a short spell into the pandemic, when McDowell was the most vociferous (and frankly gratuitously nasty) critic of the idea of a holding a drive-thru graduation for outgoing members of the HCHS Class of 2020. McDowell didn’t just oppose a drive-thru program, he was pretty ugly in describing how he felt about the idea. Of course, the rest is history: the pandemic nixed a bunch of fun stuff last year, but the drive-thru graduation provided students and families with a moment of joy and closure while keeping everyone safe, and it was such a hit that we did it all over again in 2021. Thankfully, McDowell kept quiet on the subject the second time around.

Look: the interconnected problems that the School Board is grappling with — an outdated and inefficient school building fleet, an embarrassment for a high school, low teacher and staff salaries, underfunded programs, and the beat goes on — are maddeningly difficult to solve. It didn’t help matters any when COVID-19 interrupted the School Board’s business all of last year and for much of 2021. For the most part, trustees have comported themselves with intelligence and diligence, but they do seem to have a problem making decisions about the high school. Which is a real shame — because if this board doesn’t get its act together, no one else will get the job done in its place.

And I do believe our school trustees are capable of leadership, as long as they don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, the cost figures for a new high school are high — but price is not the same as value, and projections and estimates that would seem to constrain action today may not be so restrictive tomorrow. One thing to watch as this debate moves forward is how the county may be able to tap into different pools of money -— the 1-cent sales tax revenue, expiring debt payments, savings from perhaps operating four or five elementary schools instead of seven, and God forbid, manna from heaven in the form of state and federal infrastructure funding — to cobble together a full-bore answer to our sundry school dilemmas. This is all a problem, challenge and even an opportunity with many moving parts for trustees to embrace. With luck, they’ll be open to the idea of moving off their entrenched positions and adopting smart solutions as they arise.

Because if they don’t? If the School Board cannot coalesce around a plan for the high school, the elementary schools, teacher pay and other pressing issues, the chances of bringing the Board of Supervisors around are zero. Someone’s gotta lead amid these vexatious times. And alas, there’s really no one else for the job.

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