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HCHS land acquisition nixed at testy school board meeting

SoVaNow.com / June 15, 2021
Halifax County School Board trustees took little action but laid bare sharp divisions in their June monthly meeting Monday night at the middle school.

The one major action board members did take was to reject a proposal by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Lineburg to purchase some 12 acres of land next to Halifax County High School for a negotiated price of $360,000. Scott Worner, the administration’s point person on the high school modernization project, explained that the land would be needed under either scenario for improving HCHS — building an all-new facility or renovating the existing structure.

The School Board split 4-4 on a motion by ED-2 trustee Roy Keith Lloyd to purchase the property, leading to its defeat. Motions that end in ties on the eight-member board fail.

The aborted purchase of the land, known as the Powell property, was one major point of contention among trustees. There were others — arguments over how to handle a worsening situation with personnel, especially teachers who are leaving Halifax County Public Schools; and what to do about HCPS employees who have not gotten vaccinated for COVID-19.

Some arguments spilled over into others, most starkly when trustees wrangled over what to do about teacher compensation and setting a path forward on the high school.

“This is not normal”

Assistant Superintendent Valdevia Hall, who also serves as HCPS director of human resources, spoke shortly after trustees voted down the purchase of the Powell property. She laid out a looming problem for the school division — a depleted workforce, especially in the teaching ranks.

With 17 teachers retiring, other leaving for higher-paying jobs elsewhere, some teachers getting out of the profession altogether, and more employees expected to depart in July, Halifax County Public Schools has a real problem. “It is very concerning,” said Hall.

“We have been working very hard to fill the positions,” she said, explaining that HCPS has expanded its recruitment efforts by advertising openings on multiple platforms, contacting colleges and universities and other school divisions, and participating in job recruitment fairs. The school division also has posted dozens of openings on its website, with more than 70 openings listed this weekend.

“The vacancies that you’ve seen in the past month and this month, that is not normal. This is not normal,” said Hall. “Please keep in mind, we have had a very challenging year with COVID-19, for all our employees — top to bottom. Everybody has been impacted in some way.”

In exit interviews with departing teachers, Hall said she has heard any number of reasons for why people are leaving — standard causes such as relocations and, for teachers who travel to Halifax County for work, finding new jobs closer to home. Some teachers expressed frustrations at a perceived lack of support from administration and discipline issues in the classroom.

But other statements by outgoing teachers speak to conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic — the desire to work from home rather than in a classroom, the burdensome demands of covid education, and the chance to earn better pay teaching in nearby schools outside Halifax County.

“There are a variety of reasons people are leaving,” said Hall, and “we’re trying to fill [vacancies] as quick as we can. And we’re trying to get the best qualified people also.”

Lloyd, the ED-2 trustee, said Halifax County has enjoyed high retention rates among employees over the past three years and asked Hall to confirm whether his understanding was correct. She said it was.

“We’re hoping this is just going to be an exceptional year. Like I said, this is not the norm. It’s not normal,” Hall replied.

ED-3 trustee Sandra Garner-Coleman said she had heard the quality of applicants for Halifax County openings was not great, citing an unspecified source who told her the top-ranked candidates for county school jobs scored a 2.5 on a scale from 1 to 5, from lowest- to highest-qualified. Garner-Coleman said the situation was a reflection of the low salaries being offered to Halifax County teachers.

“People need to understand that teachers need to be paid, too, and they are going to migrate to areas where they can earn more money,” she said.

Garner-Coleman then returned to a point that had been settled only moments earlier with the tie vote to reject the purchase of the Powell property next to the high school. She was part of the bloc that voted to go forward with the acquisition, joined by Lloyd, Freddie Edmunds (ED-5), and Walter Potts (ED-8). Voting “no” were Board Chair Kathy Fraley (ED-1), Vice Chair Todd Moser (ED-6), Jay Camp (ED-4) and Keith McDowell (ED-7).

“It’s a sad day in Halifax County,” said Garner-Coleman, “because we have board members that do not want to see us have a state-of-the-art high school … We want to promote academic excellence and we have people who do not want to promote that.

She continued, “I do not want to put our county down, but we need to enlarge our economic base. We’re not going to attract businesses that want to come [when] they go into that high school and see the condition that it is in … When their children get beyond the elementary level, they might stay here and go to the middle school, but when it is time to hit that high school, they are getting out of here.

“It is a sad day when we do not recognize that education is the pillar that holds up a community.”

Garner-Coleman added that by delaying action on the high school, trustees will “squander that sales tax money” with construction costs rising with each passing month. “I guess we’ll send [that money] back to the state, because poor little Halifax County does not want it, because we don’t want a quality high school for our children.

“It’s disgusting,” she said.

Moser lashes out

Her comments drew a sharp retort from Moser, who told Garner-Coleman, “You can’t tell me these board members here don’t want the same things you want.” After brief crosstalk between the two, Moser laid out his primary reason for voting against the high school land acquisition: “For me to sit here and put all our money into a high school, that’ll never happen. All I can tell you is get me off the board. Because we’ve got to have [upgrades] to elementary schools just as much as we have to have the high school.

“It makes no sense for us to take 130 million dollars and put it into one school,” continued Moser, “when we got other schools in this county that were built in the 1960s that does not have air conditioning, does not have heat —“

“They do not have heat, do not have air conditioning,” interrupted Garner-Coleman, correcting his grammar.

“Does not, do not,” replied Moser, repeating his point: “But they don’t.”

Moser noted the sales tax referendum was presented to county voters as a way to avoid having to raise property taxes to pay for new school facilities, and “if taxpayer dollars have to go up, I’d much rather see them go up to pay our teachers, who can teach our kids regardless of the condition of our schools.”

Camp, speaking moments later, offered a similar rationale for his vote against purchasing the property. Waving around the School Board’s goals action plan in his hand, Camp mentioned the first two items on the list — preparing students for future careers and setting high standards for student learning and full accreditation. “That’s what teachers give us,” he said.

“Teachers have been put upon this last year,” Camp continued. “That’s why I voted no [on the land purchase], I’d like to see the money going to compensation, okay, for teachers, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime year they’ve had. They’ve had a heckuva year, too, and they deserve everything I’m going to try to give them.”

Camp said that trustees, rather than get mad at each other, should realize “who we got to get mad at — the State of Virginia. We’ve got to go back to Richmond and get one more penny on that [sales] tax” to increase school employee pay. (The penny tax approved by county voters in 2019 is specifically earmarked for school facility needs.)

“We’re losing half of our English department at our high school. Guess what? … That affects our accreditation, and they’re walking out the door. They’re walking out the door,” Camp said, holding aloft the list of School Board goals as he spoke.

Recalling the motto of late high school JROTC 1st Sgt. Gregory Scott — “Too easy” — Camp told fellow board members, “How hard is it to go see [Del.] James Edmunds and say, ‘James, I’ll go up there with you [to Richmond] and ask for one more penny.’ How easy is that? That’s what the First Sergeant would say — how easy is that?”

Jeffress and Garner-Coleman respond: That’s your plan?

Before Camp spoke, Garner-Coleman and ED-5 trustee Edmunds addressed the reasons that Moser and, later, Camp, gave for voting against the Powell property purchase, and sought to punch holes in the logic.

Garner-Coleman, addressing Moser directly, pushed back at the idea that a decision on the high school must await resolution of issues involving the elementary schools. “Dr. Lineburg has worked up a plan [of action] inclusive of the elementary schools, the high school and a compensation package, and he has given due diligence to that plan,” she said, adding, “If you don’t know, I’ve worked here for 25 years and he’s the best superintendent to ever hit this county” — drawing a nod of agreement from Moser.

“He works endless hours putting together proposals, and Dr. Worner does the same thing,” Garner-Coleman continued, “and they’ll come in here and lay it all out, and the man with authority [says] ‘No! No!’ I mean, that’s your decision.”

Edmunds jumped in, pointing out that the vote to purchase the Powell property is not a vote to build a new high school, since the land would be needed under either option for HCHS — an all-new facility, which could cost anywhere from $100 million or $130 million, or extensive renovations to the high school, the cost of which was pegged at around $73 million to $88 million two years ago, depending on the study.

Worner, in his presentation early in the meeting, laid out two possible uses for the Powell property, which fronts Halifax Road between the high school and the Quality Gas station, better known as the Gas House.

If the county decides to build a new school, the land could form a portion of the building footprint, Worner said. If the county chooses to renovate the existing building, the site would be useful as a staging area for heavy construction equipment, with a portion set aside for student parking.

Either way, pointed out Edmunds, it makes little sense to spurn the chance to acquire the land when it could always be sold off or marketed by the county to potential businesses if the School Board decides it is not essential for modernizing the high school.

“If necessary, you can turn the land back over to the county, turn it over to the IDA, let them make some money off of it if we don’t use it,” said Edmunds.

If the county goes the lower-cost renovation route, it will need the property for a number of reasons. Worner laid out a sequence of changes that would result with renovation: classes would be held in trailers set up at the school bus parking lot, school bus parking would shift to the existing student lot, and students could park in a portion of the newly acquired acreage. The rest of the land would be used to house heavy construction equipment and building materials.

Without the extra land, Edmunds asked, what’s the plan for renovating HCHS while students remain at the high school campus, lacking feasible options for an alternative high school site?

“You talk about safety — we want to make sure that equipment doesn’t hurt our children when we renovate the high school,” Edmunds said, explaining the importance of having a building staging area. He added, “I hope we got another plan — because right now you know you’re gonna do something with the high school.

“Now you’ve got to decide where are you going to put all those school buses at, where are you going to have the parents drop the kids off, where are you going to set the tents up, where you’re going to do all that stuff at,” Edmunds said.

“Right now the whole comprehensive plan is on hold, because we ain’t got nowhere to put that heavy equipment, we can’t get no dirt, we can’t park the school buses, we can’t have the parents drop their kids off, so what are we going to do?

“Figure it out,” he concluded.

Worner: Paying market value for Powell property

Worner, who has dealt most closely with architects and builders on the design of a new or renovated high school, said that if the county takes the route of building a new school, the acquired land would likely become part of the new building footprint. The reason: engineering studies have shown the existing HCHS facility is built on “soft soils,” possibly contributing to cracks that have developed over time in the building.

A “12-acre piece [of the site] would constitute a large part of where a new school would go,” he said.

When school administrators first approached the landowners about acquiring the 15.21 acre property, they were presented with a purchase price of $1.6 million, said Worner. HCPS arranged an appraisal that pegged the value at $380,000, falling to around $290,000 after shaving off some three acres. Due to rising land values in the past year, Worner said the negotiated $360,000 price — $30,000 per acre — was a fair deal for HCPS.

“As a school division, we’re really not supposed to be purchasing property at anything other than market value,” he said.

The money to purchase the land would be drawn from proceeds of the county’s 1 cent school sales tax, approved by voters in 2019. Superintendent Lineburg said he had discussed the purchase with County Administrator Scott Simpson — expressing that Simpson concurs with his view that it would appropriate to spend a portion of those sales tax dollars to purchase the site, since it would be integral to the modernization project.

Pressed by ED-7 trustee Keith McDowell — who suggested there is enough land at the high school to carry out a renovation project without more land — Worner explained that the HCHS campus encompasses some 75.4 acres. The Virginia Department of Education advises that high schools be built on 125 acres, a recommendation that has been in place since the 1990s, Worner added.

After Lloyd made the motion to buy the land, seconded by Edmunds, the board deadlocked 4-4, setting the stage for clashes among trustees later in the meeting.

Fraley: Bringing the conversation back around

At the end of the discussion on how to find new teachers and what to do about compensation, ED-8 trustee Potts pressed Assistant Superintendent Hall for answers on what could be done about the problem.

“What do we need to do?” asked Potts. “Do we need to have incentives? Can we afford incentives? I can answer that — no.

“We need some type of plan to make sure that we have some kind of outcome that leads to a positive manner,” said Potts, suggesting that the administration might look into the possibility of housing assistance for new hires.

Board Chairman Kathy Fraley asked to respond to Potts and took the microphone.

“I can tell you a couple of things that we need to offer our brand new teachers, whether it’s their first year or they have experience,” said Fraley. “People who work in the building with them need to respect them.”

That respect, she added, needs to extend from the administration on down “to the teacher that works next door to them. [Those] are the two things I heard when I went to the schools.

“It wasn’t compensation. Teachers don’t work for money, they work for the future of Halifax County.”

Fraley continued by bringing up the problem of disrespectful students when Potts cut her off.

Saying she should direct her comments somewhere else other than him, Potts replied, “Some of the things you’re telling me, I’ve already heard. I’ve been on the board five times longer than you.”

The discussion wrapped up with a motion to go into closed session, ending the public portion of the meeting.


Potts, Moser exchange words on vaccinations

After the School Board recognized standout students and teachers early in the meeting, ED-8 trustee Walter Potts broached a vexing topic: What to do about school employees who have not gotten vaccinated.

His comments came after School Nursing Supervisor Tina Slabach reported that around 60 to 70 percent of staff has opted to get vaccine shots. But the number of people now seeking to get vaccinated has dropped off sharply after an initial surge among employees, Slabach said.

Potts said that percentage needs to be around 85 to 90 percent and warned Halifax County Public Schools runs the risk of future COVID-19 flareups with such a large portion of the workforce unvaccinated.

He suggested that the school division make vaccination a condition of employment — drawing a response from Lineburg, who said a mandatory vaccination policy would be controversial and difficult to carry out.

Moser lit into the idea, noting that “I don’t blame people for wanting to have a choice. When you start dictating what people have to get and what they don’t have to get, that to me sounds like communism, it sounds like Adolph Hitler.”

That drew ridicule in turn from Potts, who recalled being required as a child to get vaccinated for polio, a crippling disease that was a public health scourge at the time. He also pointed out that all schoolchildren must present proof of vaccination before they are allowed to enroll in school. He called the comparison to Nazism and communism “nonsense.”

“What you’re telling me is that it’s okay to bring your infectious self to school and infect everybody else,” Potts shot back at Moser.

“This has nothing to do with communism, this has everything to do with common sense.”

The meeting ended with no action on employee pay, vaccination or other issues raised during the meeting, aside from rejecting the Powell property purchase. School Board members took no action on a recommendation to replace the rutted high school track at a cost of $453,000, citing lack of funds. Lineburg suggested the project could be paid for by tying it to the high school modernization project, but action on that, too, will await future votes.

Trustees adopted the six-point School Board goals action plan, calling for a robust program of career and college preparation, high student achievement and 100% school accreditation, modernization of facilities, competitive compensation for employees, equity in education and stronger ties between schools and families. The plan passed by a 7-0 vote, with Potts abstaining.

This story will be updated.



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Comments

Thank you Mr. Moser for being the voice of reason among a group of 4 radicals. I expectedly more from Mr. Edmunds but I’m sure he’s under a lot of pressure from the bully on the board. Thank you for being the lightening rod for the majority of the county voters and citizens. Remember, you are doing the Lords work for the students and parents and also taxpayers. Keep it up, we’ve got your back.
BTW: strange how the “Lady” corrected your grammar but ignored Mr. Edmunds, HUMMMMMMMMM???

Comments

Todd keep up the good work! Potts has no clue. Coleman is a tax and spend liberal. I am disappointed in Loyd. Someone needs to run against him.

Comments

Our children suffer so the adults can play the political blame game. Immaturity, fragile egos, and selfishness can't be all the adults can teach in this county is it? You are all the same people, whatever labels you decide to give yourselves. Just throw your hands up and decide you've had enough like every other "leader" in this county, rinse and repeat. Meanwhile there's never any economic or social positives. But we do have a fancy old courthouse to try and stock the coffers with.

Comments

Thanks to Todd Moser for voicing the opinion of most of the county. Who takes an experimental shot with no track record??? Potts can have mine!! We are a poor county with the millions we just spent on the courthouse. How much can we afford??? We don’t have to have fancy buildings to provide an education. It’s going to be hard to get an education with no teachers!!! Keep up the great work Todd!!!

Comments

Things I took away from this article. The grammar police were busy correcting one board member while letting another slide. On respect for new teacher. That should apply also to board members. One showed no respect by stating he had been on the board five times longer than the other. Sounds like the disrespect seasoned teachers were accused of showing to new hires. On compensation, while teachers have a passion for their job I did not know they do not work for compensation.

Comments

Shortage of teachers because they are leaving to go to surrounding counties for higher pay an new or newer buildings, but yet Halifax wants to continue years of their same old formula of argue, waste time, and waste money. On the topic of a quality education...educate yourselves and follow the lead of the surrounding counties and maybe you can keep your teachers and possibly, just possibly attract some new teachers.


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