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Tossing a curve

SoVaNow.com / August 15, 2019
So, as long as people are asking — and believe me, they are — let’s venture the question:

What’s the deal with Joe Gasperini?

Our now-former Halifax County School Board chairman threw one heck of a curveball Monday night when, in the middle of an otherwise fairly routine trustees meeting, he resigned from the board, effective at the end of the night, and said he would move to take his name off the ballot in the November election. Gasperini calmly read aloud a statement announcing his intentions, and while you could sense the emotion peeking through, it’s never entirely clear in these situations whether that emotion is sorrow or relief.

This would be a good time to repeat an obvious, if often overlooked fact: local government service is a thankless job, offering paltry benefits and guaranteed headaches, and those who are good-hearted and civic-minded enough to take on the challenge can expect to receive nothing but grief and the occasional cheap shot in return. Other than that, I suppose, local political office is a great gig. Remember these words the next time you feel motivated to level a fact-free, bile-ladened accusation against your favorite county elected official.

Of all the jobs in local politics, School Board is certifiably the worst. Why? Because in one way or another, we’re all affected by the state of our public school system, and that right there affixes a lightning rod on the backs of everyone responsible for its aspirations and performance. (As a bonus, School Board members have to live with the fact that actually, their capabilities are limited in the respect that matters most — the budget, since it’s the Board of Supervisors that holds the purse strings.) Because he was School Board chairman, Gasperini served as the biggest lightning rod of all, although of course that doesn’t do full justice to the story. He was an outspoken public figure, especially on the need to build a new high school to replace our current embarrassment. What does it profit a School Board chairman to stick his neck out? “I’ve been told not to talk about a new high school again,” Gasperini said Monday night. Refusal to identify the source of this edict notwithstanding, here’s no reason to doubt the veracity of Gasperini’s claim, or that the figurative hatchets were out.

Look: It’s an open question whether Joe Gasperini’s comments on building a new school — declarative, brash, off putting and maybe obnoxious to some, straight talk to others — will end up helping or hurting the chances for passage of the sales tax referendum that voters will decide on Nov. 5. We’ll have no basis for making a judgment until the returns are in, and even then — who will really be able to say? There are so many decisions and discrete actions leading up to the referendum, all subject to debate and second-guessing, that we’ll never know for sure what may or may not tip the balance of public opinion, whatever it turns out to be. We can speculate till the cows come home, but we cannot know. To steal a line from Cool Hand Luke (a great movie), all of us have gotta know our limitations.

Throwing in my two cents’ worth, I would simply say this: the School Board has provided a clear answer for how it wants to fix HCHS — build a replacement facility — and that solution has gained at least the tacit endorsement of the two architectural firms that have studied the question most closely. The first firm, Moseley Architects, was paid by the School Board for a facilities review, and after delivering a worthy report they then went on to compete for the right to design a new high school (although their offer has since been effectively ruled out), so maybe it’s easy to pooh-pooh their recommendations. The kicker here is the second review — pardon me, “second opinion” review — that was funded by the Board of Supervisors, a group that plainly hoped to be apprised of some low-cost way to deal with the problem that is HCHS. (I mean seriously, go take the tour, folks.)

The supervisors paid $75,000 to OWPR Inc. for alternatives to new construction, then they heard a presentation by the firm’s CEO a week ago that left a couple of members of the board looking as though they had just finished sucking on a very large lemon. The lead company architect, Randy Jones, in a tone that was diplomatic, restrained and carefully considered, delivered a message that was impossible for anyone in the room not to hear. It essentially was this: Sure, you can renovate the high school, but it’s still going to cost a load of money, same as building a new school, and by taking the renovation route you’ll end up with a facility that will never escape all the errors of the past and will last only two-thirds as long as a new school. The math in favor of renovating HCHS is bad, the balance of the opportunity costs involved— what would be gained with a new facility, especially and most importantly from an educational perspective, versus milking 35 more years out of structure that was a mistake from the get-go — is worse. Against this backdrop, the Board of Supervisors has declined to say how it would choose to invest the proceeds from a sales tax, should the measure pass. The supervisors’ pitch going into the November election is essentially “trust us.” And folks want to dunk on Joe Gasperini?

We all know the biggest deadweight on the chances of passage for the school sales tax initiative. Everyone together now! Gimme a C, gimme an O, a U, R and T, throw in da HOUSE, whaddaya got? F-I-A-S-C-O! So let’s talk a quick second about the differences between the courthouse and the HCHS projects. First off, the courthouse was the product of a closed negotiation that was pretty plainly screwed up by the people who insisted that the process remain closed. We’re talking about the Board of Supervisors (a majority of supervisors at the time, to be precise) and county administration here, not the School Board. Second, renovation may be less expensive approach for fixing the high school, on net, but it entails risks. Remember, a majority of supervisors deluded themselves into thinking that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s building — a three-story scrap heap — could be renovated, when a five-year-old with a plastic hammer could have brought half the building down in an afternoon. It was this quality of thinking that went into the courthouse botch. And let’s be fair here: even with all the mistakes, the cost of the courthouse is basically manageable. There was one modest tax increase involved, and that’s been it. What was infuriating is the sense that no one on the outside was allowed to offer input on the courthouse renovation, or suggest alternatives to the more dubious aspects of the design. The money issues, while not insignificant, are secondary.

Which brings us back to HCHS. The School Board’s decision-making is far from perfect, but their process has been open, and from all indications it should remain so. Right now the trustees are working with two firms on a conceptual design for a new high school, and once they choose the winner, then we’ll arrive at a point where the public can offer suggestions on what, exactly, they’d like to see in a replacement HCHS facility. All of this, of course, is academic if the sales tax referendum doesn’t pass. And you know what? There’s clearly a contingent of voters that won’t vote in favor of doing anything for the high school — not a $10 million renovation, not a $50 million nor a $73.3 million renovation, and certainly not a new facility. From them, the counterproposal will be simple: Nothing.

It’s everyone else who will have to work together to push this thing through, God willing. And I get the fact that we’ll always have our differences about what, exactly, to do with our poor misbegotten high school. But think about it: without the proceeds from a sales tax, Halifax County will be stuck with a facility that will only get worse with time, will be a disservice to our children and to the entire community, and will take even bigger truckloads of money to fix at some certain point in the future.

That’s it. That’s all the argument that needs to be made over the next few months. I don’t know any better than anyone else what prompted the resignation of the School Board chairman, but instead of obsessing about missteps and contretemps on the road to November, let’s stay focused on the fact that Halifax County has a problem that badly needs fixing, and we have a potential way to achieve a fix that lessens the hit on property taxes and deflects a portion of the expense on outsiders passing through. Logic plainly points toward building a new school, but that’s logic that will make itself more apparent with time. November is coming. Flawless leadership or not, we’ll be there soon enough.

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