More students are expected in Hburg schools, board learns. What will that mean for a new high school?

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

While the fate of the proposed new high school rests with the City Council, the Harrisonburg school board members learned Tuesday they should brace for a larger-than-expected influx of students over the next five years. 

Craig Mackail, chief operating officer for the schools, presented a first draft of the Capital Improvement Plan for 2021-2025 in the school board meeting Tuesday evening. The plan is informed in part by updated enrollment projections from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia that analyzes data, including population estimates.

Mackail said the October report shows an expected increase of 678 students in the city over the next five years.

Overcrowding in the existing Harrisonburg High School is one of the key drivers behind efforts to build a new school. Harrisonburg High School, with 1,881 students, is more than 500 beyond its capacity.  

The City Council is expected to decide at its Dec. 10 meeting whether to approve $87.2 million for the new school as initially designed or a scaled-back version for $80 million that wouldn’t include athletic facilities, among other amenities. 

School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald told The Citizen after the meeting that if the City Council doesn’t decide after the public hearing Dec. 10 to start construction on the high school, it will delay opening the school by a year, until 2023. The construction firm had hoped to break ground in mid-December. 

“At this point, it’s up to them,” Fitzgerald said of the council. “We have done our due diligence. It’s time for them to act, one way or another.”

In the meantime, the district should expect more students to keep coming. 

“Compared to last year’s projection, future expected enrollment has been revised upward in all years,” according to an email to the school district from Kathryn Piper Crespin, Weldon Cooper’s research and policy analyst.

The board approves a five-year Capital Improvement Plan each year, which is then folded into the city’s plan and then must be approved by the Planning Commission and City Council. Mackail said this does not dictate the school budget, but is rather a “fluid document” used for planning purposes.

The current draft for 2021-2025 includes the same projects that were listed in the previous plan, including: 

  • purchasing land for a seventh elementary school,
  • making roof repairs at Spotswood and Waterman Elementary Schools,
  • and replacing part of the ventilation systems at Spotswood, Waterman, and Keister Elementary Schools. 

The school board members will further craft this document in their Jan. 21 work session.

The game of governmental “tag” between the council and school board over expanding the high school can be charted through the recent history of these plans. 

Mackail pointed out that concerns about accommodating enrollment growth were apparent by 2011, when the district contracted Moseley Architects to conduct a school capacity expansion study for the city’s elementary and middle schools.

“When they reported back to the school board in January 2012, the topic of discussion was, all these kids in elementary school and middle school are heading towards the high school, so y’all better start looking at that,” Mackail explained.

Then, in the 2013 plan, “we said in 2016 we need to begin Harrisonburg High School addition planning … we have had capacity planning in our CIP for a number of years,” Mackail said.

Inclusion Day highlighted

Tuesday’s meeting included a special presentation from two Stone Spring Elementary students on the “Inclusion Day” event held Oct. 29. 

Maria, a third grader, got up to the podium with a Christmas tinsel-wrapped cane and speech notes in Braille. She is legally blind.

“That doesn’t stop me from being a happy and independent girl,” she said. 

“I’m Maria’s friend,” Julian said. He’s been learning “how to do sighted guide” for his classmate.
Jill Martorana, lead autism coach for the school district, won a grant from the Virginia Department of Education to “promote disability awareness and inclusion in our schools” through the event. 

A unified basketball team, comic book author Chris Barcomb, and mouth artist Bruce Dellinger all visited Stone Spring for the day.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting: 

  • The school board recognized this year’s recipients of the Harrisonburg Education Foundation’s Innovative Educator Grants, which awarded $33,700 in 38 different grants to about 60 faculty and staff.
  • The board also commended the 2019 “Above and Beyond” award winners — two faculty or staff from each school and the central office recognized for “never accepting the ordinary” in their work, Superintendent Michael Richards said.
  • Richards announced the school district received the 2019 Dorothy S. McAuliffe School Nutrition Award from the campaign No Kid Hungry Virginia. It specifically recognized Harrisonburg’s high rate of participation in the breakfast program. “We all know kids don’t learn if they’re hungry, so we feed them well,” Richards said.

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