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Opinion

The fortunes of time

SoVaNow.com / August 30, 2018
When then-Halifax County Senior High School opened in 1979, the massive new building was a source of genuine community pride — I know, I was a member of the first graduating class in the spring of the following year. Alas, time takes its toll on all things, not just bricks and mortar. Back then, the community went through one heck of a battle to get the new high school built and pulled off the feat only with the help of a multi-million dollar federal grant that seemingly came out of nowhere. It was a surprising (and happy) conclusion to an arduous debate. Forty years later, are we up for a similar challenge?

It would be nice to think deterioration expresses itself solely in physical terms, but alas, time has done an even bigger number on the community’s confidence in its future — a state of mind that’s more scuffed up than HCHS’s once-gleaming surfaces. I can hardly wait for the naysayers to proclaim that we can’t afford a top-notch school facility for our kids. Or, how today’s students don’t deserve anything better than they’ve got, even if Halifax County had the financial means to do more on their behalf. How long will it be before someone jumps up to argue Halifax County should simply accept its fate as a retirement community, with an expiration date that’s measurable and certain but not to be discussed? If we truly want to buy our ticket to the theater of the absurd, perhaps we can fixate on other, lesser priorities that hamstring the county’s ability to pay for educational needs. Cows don’t go to school, right? Where have I heard that one before?

Let’s be honest. Too much of today’s society is caught up in a spirit of defeatism and retrenchment that feeds on past failures with gleeful abandon. In Halifax County, the usual suspects will no doubt have a field day deriding the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars (out of a tax base in the billions) to correct longstanding errors of judgment and execution. Following the Aug. 21 tour of the high school conducted by HCHS Principal Michael Lewis and Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg, this newspaper posted our coverage online, at SoVaNow.com, and the response from anonymous commenters on the site was pretty much as you’d expect: “Sorry we don’t need to spend that much to fix up the school…”, “The school board needs to held accountable for this…”, “The structure is good it [just] needs to be maintained…”, “The custodial staff needs to be fired….”

To which the rightful answers are: no, no, no and no. Just to take the usual suspects in prime whipping boy order, ranked from top to bottom, it would be reasonable to blame the School Board for the dismal state of HCHS if said school board had the taxing authority to ensure its ongoing maintenance and modernization — but in Virginia, school boards have no such taxing authority. And please, folks, don’t blame the poor janitors for the decrepit state of the high school. Are they the ones responsible for HVAC systems that are original to the building, are falling apart, and that resemble the innards of a Civil War ironclad? Emphatically not.

What about the building? Is it worth saving? Now here it’s my turn to cast a vote in the negative. Having been part in the HCHS tour a week ago, it’s hard to convey in words the sinking feeling I experienced walking through the building — it was like seeing an old friend unable to get out of bed at the nursing home. But truth be told, even with adequate maintenance, the flagship facility that once exemplified Halifax County’s progressive, optimistic streak would not withstand the test of time. Aside from issues that might be fixable with a top-to-bottom overhaul — the moldy air, the grungy floors and walls, the broken systems and sagging ceilings — there’s the fortress-like brutalist architecture of the building itself, which perhaps was stylish in the ‘70s in the same way polyester suits were once flaunted on the dance floor. Today sensible people keep these things hidden in the closet, if they hold back the urge to light a match and take care of the problem without any sentiment whatsoever.

HCHS’s design woes are thoroughgoing in scope: the hallways are too narrow, the wide spaces are a disjointed mess (and pose security hazards), the building is just too big and unwieldy to lend itself to a collaborative, comprehensive educational experience. The worst part of last week’s tour? Visiting the C-wing. I’m embarrassed to say it was my first time traipsing through the portion of the building where, back in the day, shop classes were kept out of sight and out of mind, and where today HCHS hosts its career and technical education program (such as it is). The entire idea of elevating the CTE curriculum as a first-among-equals choice for the development of Halifax County’s future workforce is a joke, as long as you shovel the program into the portion of the building most resembling a dump.

We’ll need a great deal of outside help to undo decades of neglect and decline at HCHS, a span that has eaten away at the ability of localities like Halifax to pay for the education of their children. I have no love lost for state Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County, whose legislative district includes the western half of Halifax, but he’s on the mark with a proposed bill that would identify outside funding for the county to build a new school; Stanley wants the state to dedicate windfall revenues from online sales taxes towards K-12 capital improvements. (Local shops that have been undermined badly by the likes of Amazon have been collecting the sales taxes all along.) Del. James Edmunds also says he’ll introduce a bill next year that would allow Halifax County to assess a 1 cent local option sales tax (subject to voter approval) to pay for a new school. Some combination of these ideas would greatly lessen the need to raise property taxes and boost the chances of actually doing something to fix Halifax County’s most glaring problem.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The former, not the latter, is the big concern. There are assorted issues that need to be worked out before anyone can plant a flag for their favored course of action — renovate or rebuild — but two options that need to be discarded outright are doing nothing at all, or the minimum required to get by. The ‘70s were arguably a decade when we talked ourselves into believing things were better than they really were — disco, three TV channels, various casual vices about which the less said the better — but we were never so deluded as to believe our kids should attend school in buildings that dated back to the 1930s and the depression. Well, four decades later, here we are again. Who else is ready to keep the clock moving forward?





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