By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
The Harrisonburg City Council narrowly approved the construction of the new high school as originally designed on Tuesday evening – with the athletics facilities included — allowing builders to break ground in time for the $87.2 million building to open in fall 2022.
Council member Chris Jones moved to approve the school board’s comprehensive agreement with Nielsen Builders, Inc. And Mayor Deanna Reed and Vice-mayor Sal Romero voted in favor while Council Members Richard Baugh and George Hirschmann voted against it.
The decision prompted many of the roughly 80 attendees to burst into applause.
Earlier during the meeting, 26 city residents spoke in favor of building the high school as designed. Another eight spoke out against either options – “A,” to build as designed, or “B,” to delay the construction of athletics facilities, shaving $7.2 million off the initial cost. None of the public commenters explicitly supported option “B.”
The building itself is estimated at $87.2 million, according to the architects and builders who presented to the city school board. But the city estimates the total cost of the project at more than $100 million, which includes furniture, computers and road improvements around the site, which will be between Main Street and I-81.
City staff and city council members expect a tax increase will be needed to pay the additional costs on the new school’s debt payments, however, the council didn’t take up that issue Tuesday.
Proponents of building the school as designed extolled the value of investing in education, relieving the overcrowding at Harrisonburg High School that’s about 500 students over capacity, as well as the value of athletics in a well-rounded education. Several argued that delaying the athletics facilities would only increase the cost of building them in the future.
Their comments drew applause and occasional yells of support from the audience.
“City council should have been planning for this expense a long time ago,” Kathleen Holter said. Holter is a third grade teacher at Stone Spring Elementary and the president of the Harrisonburg Education Association.
Several commenters said Harrisonburg High School had been dangerously close to capacity as soon as it opened in 2005 because of decisions previous members of the school board and city council made.
“Let’s not shortchange ourselves like we did with the current high school,” said Peter Johnson, the head equipment manager for JMU’s baseball and softball teams. He pointed to his 8-year-old daughter sitting in the audience.
“I’m asking you to get behind that young lady right there,” Johnson said.
Another person who spoke out in support of plan “A” was a sophomore at Harrisonburg High School who explained to the council members how “sitting on the floor” during lunch was common and how difficult it is to “exit the building safely” in an emergency because of the sheer numbers of people.
“If we are spending money, what better investment than the students that will be our future?” she asked the council, prompting a standing ovation.
Opponents of either option for the new high school were primarily concerned with its cost.
“I see this as a mom, but also as an educator,” said Carolyn Poirot, an instructional assistant at Keister Elementary School. While she acknowledged the need for a new school, she denounced the current proposals as “fancy and unnecessarily expensive.”
How members voted and why
While Jones made the motion to proceed with the school as designed, he gave a more than 15-minute lecture on the financial difficulty and context of the decision.
“I’ve tried twice to move forward with a school, and I was extremely unsuccessful. I wanted the school to open in 2021, and that didn’t work out the way I wanted it,” Jones said. But, “knowing that we have other needs, that’s the part that is complex for me as an elected official … we’re balancing all the macro needs.”
He listed public utilities and public safety infrastructure as more essential needs than education.
Jones also implored the school board to delay breaking ground a few weeks in order to consider building the school on another plot of land. He said the planned site – between Interstate 81 and South Main Street – would be better suited for economic development.
Nielsen Builders representatives, however, told the school board last month that in order to open the school for the 2022-23 school year, the construction company needed to break ground by mid-December.
Romero, who ran for council in 2018 on a platform to open the school as soon as possible, said he had made a promise to his son.
“I told him I was going to do this so that he could have a high school he could go to that was not going to be overcrowded,” Romero said. “I’m excited that we can make it happen tonight.”
Hirschmann said he was not as enthused as some of his colleagues because of the school’s price.
“We need a school. We need to do something,” he said. “It concerns me. We’re talking about a lot of money. It’s a big squeeze on the city budget, and there’s so many other things around here that we’ve got to keep an eye on.”
Baugh noted that, while the council had already voted to build a new high school of some sort, the city has many other expenses to maintain its infrastructure.
“When you’re a member of the general public, you have the luxury of going all in on a single issue. You get caught up in, ‘this is the most important thing that we have to do right now.’
“If I’ve been anything in 11 years in this spot, it’s been that I’ve been pretty insistent that we need to be looking at the big picture,” Baugh said.
Reed echoed that priority of the “big picture.” And she said she did have concerns with the cost.
However, she added: “everybody who knows me knows that I support our students, I support kids. That’s my life mission.”
Also at the meeting:
- City Manager Eric Campbell announced that the Middle River Regional Jail board authority had authorized Moseley Architects, which recently completed a needs assessment for the jail, to submit that document to the Virginia Department of Corrections. The state department will review the needs assessment and determine whether the jail is eligible for state funding for expansion.
- The council unanimously adopted a resolution agreeing to the continued settlement of international refugees in the city of Harrisonburg. The resolution allows organizations such as Church World Service to apply for federal funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
- Eric Dart, the athletics manager in the Parks and Recreation department, presented a $24,498.76 check to the RMH Foundation, which supports the Sentara RMH Medical Center and their patients. The money was raised through the 17th annual Race to Beat Breast Cancer 5k at Westover Park this October.
- The council unanimously approved a comprehensive update to the sign ordinance presented by city staff. Major changes included removing the regulation of sign content and changing ordinance infractions from a criminal to a civil offense.
- The council unanimously appointed Rachel Drescher as the city’s Zoning Administrator. Drescher has served as the acting zoning administrator since February.
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