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Ticket to ride
SoVaNow.com / June 15, 2016A serious question: Which of these things should you be more upset about in Mecklenburg County — a 40 percent hike in real estate taxes, or a huge consolidated school complex for students in grades 6-12 who would be traveling in from one end of the county to the other?
Opinions will vary, but I wouldn’t be so sure that the latter choice — which just so happens to be the official recommendation of the Mecklenburg County school facilities steering committee — is the ticket to a happier public in the long term.
A week after the steering committee voted to endorse a single, 2,500-student complex to replace four schools (Bluestone Middle and High and Park View Middle and High), the likelihood of reaching something close to a countywide consensus on the optimal configuration of school facilities seems more remote than ever.
On Monday, South Hill Town Council adopted a resolution in favor of two high school/middle school complexes at each end of the county, which more or less would preserve the current status quo with Bluestone and Park View. The vote by South Hill Council comes as no surprise: business and civic leaders in town have been vocal in asking to keep secondary schools in South Hill, albeit with new facilities to replace the old and inadequate ones currently in use.
Communities in western Mecklenburg, by and large, have largely taken the opposing point of view: entities from Boydton Town Council to the Clarksville Economic Development Association back the single school option, in no small part because there’s minimal enthusiasm for sticking with the cornfield campus at Bluestone High School or the dilapidated digs at Bluestone Middle. Amid this east-west disagreement, sentiment is further curdling around the notion that one end of the county is dissing the other — I won’t get into the details, but the Viewpoint letter by James Borowski on the opposite page does a pretty good job of covering the basics. (I assume Mr. Borowski read last week’s front page, which featured a story on South Hill’s campaign to keep Park View that contained some of the comments that he mocks in his letter.)
Out of this cacophony of voices, the opinions that matter the most belong to members of the Board of Supervisors. The School Board has an important role to play in this process as well, but let’s just start out with the reality that it’s the supervisors who will decide whether to fund new school construction, and at what cost. For a variety of reasons, all of them no doubt sincere, the steering committee endorsed the consolidated school complex for county students in grades 6-12, which carries an estimated price tag of $100 million. For sake of comparison, two separate high school/middle school complexes to replace all four Bluestone and Park View buildings would cost around $160 million.
Incidentally, roughly 60 percent of the public that responded to surveys expressed a preference for keeping high schools and middle schools on both ends of the county, east and west.
Incidentally is a word used purposefully here.
A truism of public opinion surveys is you can get the answer you’re looking for depending on how the issues are framed. It’s an open question whether 60 percent backing for separate east-west high schools would hold up if residents were also made aware of the tax implications of their preferences. County Administrator Wayne Carter has estimated that the tax hit for new schools could be seven cents on the low side, for a single countywide complex, to up to 18 cents for two east-west schools for grades 6-12, which is the most expensive option still under consideration. Doing the math, the county’s real estate tax rate is set at 42 cents per $100 in the upcoming budget. A seven-cent increase translates into a 17 percent jump in that property tax rate. An 18-cent increase to pay for two separate school complexes for grades 6-12 would push the real estate tax rate up by 43 percent. That’s a pretty stark difference.
History offers a clear guide on how the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors is likely to view this matter. Supervisors have a long (and dismaying) record of providing bottom-dollar support for local education, which is a big reason why this facilities debate remains cause for celebration despite the divisions that have arisen among communities. As untenable as the current situation is, with four secondary schools bearing sell-by dates that expired in the Nixon Administration, the future feels even more mind-blowing: part of me still can’t believe the supervisors are really prepared to go forward with the biggest investment this county has made in its youth in nearly a century.
On top of this, the school facilities steering committee’s recommendation gives powerful momentum to the single school option. You don’t have to agree with all the particulars of their decision to recognize that members of the steering committee are smart people who are acting in good faith. Cost considerations aside, there are compelling educational reasons — and perhaps important civic reasons, too — to build a single, diversified school for the county’s middle school and high school students. Properly designed and supported, such a school could be a boon for local education. The fact that it just so happens to be the cheapest option available to the Board of Supervisors is beside the point, under the generous reading of the situation.
And yet ….
One can’t help but to be leery of an underlying premise of the steering committee’s work — the assumption that by setting the investment in facilities at a somewhat low level, the county will be able to spend more freely on school operating needs in the future. What if an alternative is true — and the Board of Supervisors takes the bottom-dollar option today, the bottom-dollar option tomorrow, the bottom-dollar option forever? (Apologies to George Wallace.) Building a single school for two thousand-plus students with amenities and programming you’d only expect to find in larger and wealthier communities would be an enormous plus for Mecklenburg County. Packing students in grades 6-12 into a single facility that has a underfunded curriculum and a warehouse-like setting would be a travesty that would reverberate throughout the county for generations. The tax rate would be low, but the taxpayers would be getting what they paid for.
Small schools that offer mediocre educations shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a big whoop-de-doo, either, yet all things being equal, smaller schools are more manageable and tend to have stronger school communities than big schools located miles away from population centers. Such considerations are not unimportant. It’s for these reasons that I’d be especially leery of merging the county’s middle schools into a consolidated facility. (Further pairing up kids in grades 6-8 with the high school grades strikes me as even a bigger stretch — and yes, it’s very possible these challenges could be overcome with wise choices for the design and layout of a large single-school campus.)
If there’s a single takeaway from the school facilities debate, it’s this: all of the choices are fraught with downsides. By the same token, the potential upsides are real, too. But if members of the Board of Supervisors do opt for the single-school plan, they owe it to the 60 percent of the public that has expressed a preference for the current east-west alignment to explain why their alternative is better — and then take that promise for the future and make it so. In my mind, that means an end of the cheapo approach with local education, starting with a full-throated commitment to adequately fund teacher salaries and academic programs as the trade-off for lower investment in facilities. Otherwise, Mecklenburg County really would be better off with cozier, close-by, less ambitious east-west school facilities — even if the upfront construction costs are greater. Tax bills would be higher, but people adjust to such problems over time. Not being happy with the 30-minute drive to attend a school that your kid hates? That sort of bad feeling sticks.
And the point can’t be made enough: at 42 cents per $100, Mecklenburg’s real estate tax rate is one of the lowest in Virginia. At 60 cents, the tax rate would be roughly equal to that of many of our neighboring counties. Spread out over time, higher taxes are palatable as long as taxpayers are basically satisfied with the results. Schools that fall short of the standard of excellence we’ve set in this school facilities debate — and citizens have a right to expect? That’s the worst outcome of all.