With the clock ticking to make a decision that’ll vastly shape a new educational landscape in Halifax County for years to come, leaders viewed the latest proposed visions Thursday to either revamp or build a new high school, along with a plethora of options for myriad changes to elementary facilities.
And with labor and construction costs continuing to rise, time is money. To continue kicking the decision down the road only adds to the millions of borrowed dollars, officials said.
No final decisions on school construction or renovations were made at the meeting in which Branch Builds — the same company that completed renovations to Halifax County Middle School in 2007 — and RRMM Architects presented six different options for the county’s elementary school buildings and two different proposals for the high school building.
In February, the Halifax County School Board entered into a pre-construction service contract with Branch Builds to take a new look at the county’s aging high school.
The joint facilities committee comprised of members of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors and the school board was formed after county voters approved a referendum for a 1% sales tax earmarked for local school construction and renovation in November 2019.
The 1% sales tax will be collected for a 30-year timeframe. To date, the sales tax has generated $2.85 million in revenue.
Both renovating and building a new addition to the high school and constructing a new facility each carry a price tag exceeding $100 million. Elementary school renovation and construction options are estimated to cost about $40 million, according to proposed plans presented by the contractors and architects.
Scott Simpson, Halifax County administrator, urged the committee to keep in mind once the sales tax revenues cease in 30 years, resources will be limited, so the long-range needs of all schools should be taken into account when making decisions about the allocation of funding.
“In 30 years when any facilities we decide to work on now need additional work and that $2.8 million a year (in sales tax revenues) goes away, then you’re looking at very limited resources at that time to do future renovations on things that will probably cost three times as much as they cost right now,” Simpson said. “I think our goal as stewards of the taxpayers’ money is to make sure that we don’t hinder the growth or the prosperity of the county currently and/or in decades to come. This decision is a big decision.”
While the fate of the high school and the elementary schools hang in the balance, the joint facilities committee also is tasked with the recommendation of raising the county’s real estate taxes starting in fiscal year 2023 to help fund the school construction and renovation projects or leaving the rates steady.
Thursday’s meeting was the first time the committee gathered since February 2020, since COVID-19 put a halt to the discussions in March 2020. Since that last face-to-face meeting, virtual meetings have been conducted to gather community input about school construction options.
“Fifteen months have passed. This meeting is bringing everybody back together. It’s a part of the process,” Scott Worner, interim director of secondary education for the school system, said. “In late July/early August there will be a culminating meeting when all the board members will sit down with the architects and plans will all be laid out.”
In the February 2020 meeting, Superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg said the joint committee nearing the point of making a decision on funding allocation for school construction and renovation was the culmination of a three-year process.
“This is an exciting time for us in Halifax. There is only one county that is getting sales tax for schools in the history of Virginia, and that is us,” Lineburg said. “We’ve had well over 100 meetings with stakeholders in the public the last three years, and it’s been an all-out effort on our part.”
High school options
The two high school options presented at Thursday’s meeting — held in Halifax County High School’s library — were to build a new facility on the existing site and a plan to renovate the current building on the existing site and construct a large addition.
Financially, there’s only a $1.2 million difference in those two options. A new facility would cost $136.67 million.
Another option of simply repairing the high school with no addition — an idea tossed out in previous discussions — was not presented at Thursday’s meeting. Jaime English, preconstruction manager for Branch Builds’ southern region, said there are structural and foundational issues with the current high school building. That’s why repairing the high school was not one of the options presented.
Duane Harver of RRMM Architects noted the plan for the renovated high school structure versus the new school structure is not an “apples to apples” comparison. With the renovation/addition model, the construction phase will be a longer duration since there is more square footage to renovate than what a new building would encompass. The plan for the new high school is a 280,000-square-foot building with a capacity of 1,500 students.
ED-2 school board trustee Roy Keith Lloyd asked about the annual costs savings on building new versus renovating.
“I imagine it to be a significant efficiency increase,” he said, referring to building a new school.
English said he’d “dig into that.”
Halifax County High School was built in the 1970s. A previous study conducted by another architectural firm, Moseley Architects, identified renovation of the high school as an immediate need for Halifax County High…