School officials will ask council on Feb. 12 to approve starting new high school design phase

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor

The Feb. 12 City Council meeting will be when school board officials present the updated construction cost estimates to city council members so they can consider how quickly to move forward with the new high school building.  

The city council-school board liaison committee — which is made up of two school board members, the superintendent, two city council members and the city manager —  selected that date during its meeting Wednesday morning. It fell to that first council meeting in February because agenda for the next meeting, Jan. 22, already has been set.

“We’re looking for the green light to move forward,” said Interim Superintendent Patrick Lintner. “Obviously that wouldn’t happen today, but that would happen through some action of council.”

School board Chair Deb Fitzgerald said that in a closed session during the school board meeting Tuesday evening, the board members agreed to ask the council to take “a formal vote, formal authorization to pull the timeline up” to opening the school in 2022. Then, she said, they can begin to talk about how to make it happen.

The clock is already ticking to meet that 2022 goal – a construction timeline presented to the school board by Grimm & Parker Architects on Jan. 7 showed the design portion beginning this month.

City Manager Eric Campbell said no funds have been appropriated yet from the city budget to begin design or construction, so any up-front costs, such as paying the architect to begin designing the plans, would require a special appropriation – including a public hearing and council vote.

“Obviously, overcrowding has not subsided,” Lintner said of Harrisonburg High School. “If you don’t build it now, you’re going to regret it and you’re not going to have the same kind of capacity to build it later.”

The current high school, which turns 14 years old this year and now has about 1,800 students, was built for 1,360 students.

The estimated cost of a new high school has gone up since the city council approved moving forward with the project last January. Since the first estimate was calculated a year ago, the cost of the project has risen by $9.5 million. If delayed, that price tag would likely continue to rise, given current trends in the labor and materials markets, according to a presentation this month by architects from Grimm + Parker.  

Campbell, the city manager, asked that those cost escalators be explained in detail to the council in the Feb. 12 presentation, as well as why 15 acres of the 60-acre plot were deemed “unsuitable” for building.

Council member Chris Jones asked, “as a parent,” when more specific details and features of the school will be addressed, such as how its construction design will interact with the school curriculum. For instance, the architects suggested including “collaborative learning zones” specifically built for group projects and activities.

“The programming part of it will begin the minute you tell us to move forward,” Lintner said.

The School Board will hold public input sessions about programming, and Fitzgerald said board members are eager to begin that conversation.

“We’re beyond ready to start doing that,” she said.

The construction of the new high school will also prompt a redistricting process to determine which neighborhoods feed into which school. School board member Andy Kohen said the redistricting process from a year-and-a-half ago to account for the opening of Bluestone Elementary School included “representation from across the community,” which they intended to include again in the upcoming redistricting.

“We’re just anxious to get the ropes off the ship, point it out of the port,” said Fitzgerald. The liaison committee will meet again Friday, Feb. 8 over lunch in the council chambers to prepare for the Feb. 12 city council presentation.

Other developments from Tuesday evening’s school board meeting included:

  • The board has received 36 applications for the superintendent position, which board members will review in a closed session on Jan. 22.

  • And Lintner announced that they are “looking for teacher raises as a top priority” as they write the upcoming year’s budget.

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