To allow for public input, council delays vote on new high school’s design to Dec. 10

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The Harrisonburg City Council postponed a vote on the new high school’s design until Dec. 10 to allow for a public hearing, while city council members also continue looking for ways to soften the blow on residents’ tax bills. 

Vice-Mayor Sal Romero, who made the motion to hold the public hearing, said he planned to vote for building the high school as originally designed, with all the athletics facilities to be completed at the same time as the building — for a total of $87.2 million. 

The other option before council on Tuesday was a “phased-in” option, which the school board authorized after its own public hearing earlier this month. That version would delay construction of the new high school’s athletic facilities to save about $7.2 million off the initial price tag.

But, Romero said, he had been contacted repeatedly by local residents who “want to have the opportunity to come before us to try to convince us one way or another.” 

He asked school district Superintendent Michael Richards if waiting to make a decision until Dec. 10 would still allow the school to be finished in time to open in 2022. The construction company had hoped to break ground on site by mid-December. 

“We could do it, but it would put us very close,” Richards said. “I do believe that … you could entertain the public hearing and then, if you voted that night, I think we would be okay.”

City Manager Eric Campbell said he and Richards “totally agree that there’s a crowding problem at the high school,” and that the city has a financial responsibility to address that problem. 

But, as he told The Citizen in a previous interview, he is concerned with how much the city can afford to spend on the school without affecting core services.

Council Member Chris Jones said these discussions of funds and affordability called into question the validity of the Heritage Oaks Golf Course, which the city subsidizes.

“I believe firmly that we need to stop the operation of the golf course. This will save us at least a penny … of the current 86 cents of the real estate tax [rate],” Jones said. 

The golf course has lost an average of about $440,000 a year over the last decade, according to the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports.

During that time, it has brought in an average annual revenue of about $682,000 while the city spent an average of $1.1 million per year in grounds and club management. 

“What I can’t do, as one of the leaders and elected officials of our community, is tell people we can’t afford one thing, and then have a luxury item,” Jones said. 

He also pointed out that if they closed down the golf course, the 200-acre property could be used to build future schools.

Also at the meeting:

  • The council voted 4-1 to overturn a decision from the Public Tree Advisory Board, which had denied First Presbyterian Church’s application to remove a Chinese Elm planted on Court Square. Council member Richard Baugh gave the dissenting vote. The church plans to demolish the building it owns adjacent to the church to replace it with a courtyard. Church officials say they need to remove the tree to properly access the building. Dan Hylton, representing the church at Tuesday’s meeting, said the church would plant at least one replacement tree after the project was complete.
  • The council tabled appointments for the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Planning Commission in hopes of receiving “more applicants,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. She invited anyone interested to apply on the city’s website.
  • The council unanimously appointed William Tyler Strosnider to the Stormwater Advisory Committee, Kevin Gibson and James Logan to the Parks and Recreation Commission, Kyle Lawrence to the Harrisonburg Transportation Safety and Advisory Commission, and Phyllis Coulter to the Board of Equalization.

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