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Relief bills yield $17 mil for Halifax schools to apply to future

SoVaNow.com / April 15, 2021
Three major relief packages enacted by Congress in the past 12 months have left Halifax County Public Schools with roughly $17 million in available and future dollars to spend on recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, over the short and long term.

The latest tranche of money is the largest — an estimated $11.1 million from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, enacted in March by congressional Democrats and President Biden.

HCPS was already sitting on a nearly $5 million in unspent funds from a December 2020 stimulus package of $900 billion, passed in the waning days of the Trump Administration. Before that, the division had roughly $1 million in accumulated funds that has not yet been used up from the first covid stimulus bill, the $2.2. trillion CARES Act of March 2020.

While some of the money is restricted for specific purposes — such as short-term learning recovery programs with schools across the U.S. shuttered by the pandemic — federal guidelines suggest that school divisions will have flexibility to spend a significant share of the money on long-term needs, including modernized facilities.

With county and school officials already pondering what to do about the dilapidated Halifax County High School building, and renovations and possible restructuring of elementary schools under active discussion, the infusion of cash could have a profound impact on the 21st century footprint of Halifax County Public Schools.

“This is new, having any kind of extra money,” said Superintendent Mark Lineburg. “What I want is something that can impact students not just now, but for a number of years.

“I don’t want to miss on this money. We’ll never get it again. I want to put it to good use.”

As for the scale of the cash infusion, it comes after Halifax County voters approved a sales tax referendum in 2019 that is projected to generate around $100 million over a 30-year period to finance school construction. The $17 million in federal covid recovery funding is significantly higher than the entire county contribution to the FY 2021-22 school operating budget, 14,243,414.

Since passage of the original CARES Act last spring, the school division has spent $1,316,582 on items related to COVID-19 — everything from PPE and disinfectants to sanitation systems to hazard pay bonuses for employees. The first wave of funding has come out of different pools of the CARES Act, with some of that money rerouted through the state Department of Education to meet state-specific needs arising from the pandemic.

While school divisions had until Dec. 30, to use up a large share of its CARES money, other sums flowing from that first stimulus bill don’t have to be spent until September 2022. Meantime, the deadline for using up the second tranche of funding, from the $900 billion stimulus package signed by President Trump in December, isn’t until September 2023.

Lineburg said school officials have not yet been given a deadline for spending the estimated $11.1 million headed to Halifax with passage of Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

Whatever lies ahead, Lineburg said the School Board will host public meetings to get input from citizens on how the money can best be used.

“The community can expect us not to go on an immediate spending spree. Everything we do is step-by-step,” he said.

Last month, HCPS director of operations and maintenance Steve Brumfield obtained School Board approval for a six-year capital improvement plan that will cost an estimated $1.3 million in the first year, and between $880,000 and $1.35 million over the next five years. The biggest ticket item in the first year of the spending plan is replacement of Scottsburg Elementary’s HVAC system, costing an estimated $650,000.

Other expenditures include interior painting of Sinai Elementary, an athletic field at South Boston Elementary, maintenance of HCHS courts and fields, and curtain replacements at Cluster Springs and Clays Mill elementary schools. A share of the capital improvement plan would go to the maintenance and transportation departments and for the purchase of white fleet vehicles.

Brunsfield’s plan envisions annual HVAC replacements, much like at Scottsburg Elementary, in successive years at Clays Mill, Meadville, Sinai and finally South Boston and Cluster Springs during the plan’s sixth year. A HVAC system replacement has already been approved for Sydnor Jennings, and that work is currently in progress.

In adopting the capital improvement plan, trustees did not identify a funding source to pay for it, although last year, the School Board had enough money left over from the previous year’s budget to go forward with new Sydnor Jennings HVAC without having to seek additional funding from the county.

With many questions about the federal stimulus bills yet to be resolved, it’s not yet known how much of the money can be applied to school capital needs, but Lineburg said he’s hopeful. New HVAC systems, for instance, is specifically mentioned as an approved use under federal spending guidelines.

Any funding coming from the federal government that can be applied towards long-term capital projects translates into money in the county school budget that doesn’t have to be used for the same purpose. “If you’re investing money that’s not local on capital [needs], it ought to free up money for [employee] compensation,” said Lineburg, citing another School Board goal. “Capital spending is always a drag on the operating budget.”

It’s possible that Halifax County Public Schools could see even more money rolling in from the federal government if the Biden Administration and Congress pass an infrastructure bill on top of the American Rescue Plan. Biden has proposed a $2.2 trillion dollar infrastructure package that would be paid for by raising taxes on corporations and upper-income Americans.

Biden’s plan calls for a massive boost in spending on highways and bridges, mass transit, green energy projects such as electric vehicle charging stations, and other infrastructure needs, from universal broadband to support for elder care and child care services. Schools also are likely to get a significant boost if the plan goes through.

“With the infrastructure plan, paying attention to that, there could revenue for schools there, too,” said Lineburg. “That’s at least the impression I’m getting, that that’s possible as well.”

The convergence of federal funding streams comes as the School Board has renewed its discussions on how, exactly, it wants to move forward with modernization of HCHS, approved by county voters in 2019. Trustees have also identified facility upgrades for elementary schools as a major priority — with some trustees expressing reluctance to move forward with a major project for the high school while leaving plans for the county’s older elementary facilities hanging.

This week, the School Board received an unsolicited proposal from Roanoke-based Branch Builds Construction to develop a facilities plan that would include the modernization of the older elementary schools — Sinai, Meadville, Sydnor Jennings, Clays Mill and Scottsburg. The proposal, submitted under Virginia’s school facilities public-private partnership act, comes after the School Board tentatively selected Branch Builds as its private sector partner in modernizing HCHS.

The firm’s conceptual plans for the high school and the elementary schools have not been disclosed. Lineburg suggested it is still too early for Branch Builds to even have developed a tangible plan. But the idea of Branch Builds — which did the renovations to the middle school more than a decade ago — widening the scope of its review to include the elementary schools is appealing to school officials.

“They saw that one of our goals was looking at the elementary schools. This is all unsolicited," he said. "They brought this to us — they said ‘we’re interested in working with you on the elementary schools.’”

The school division is currently advertising for other design-build teams to submit plans, at a cost of $10,000 to review, with no assurance that any plan will be accepted.

School administrators are talking to the Branch Builds design-build team to try to get a handle on how the pandemic has fundamentally changed the educational landscape, with the likelihood of virtual learning becoming an ongoing fixture of K-12 education.

“That’s what we’re working on now, to see what has changed,” said Lineburg.



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Then the dang school board should not ask for anymore money from the residents of the county! We pay federal/state and local taxes! I am sick of giving my hard earned money to the government for them to waste it!


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