Board delays new high school project

An updated computer-generated rendering provided to the school board in February shows the plans for the new high school campus between I-81 and Main Street.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg’s new high school will not open by fall 2022 as planned. In light of local revenue lost because of the pandemic, the Harrisonburg School Board voted unanimously in a virtual meeting Tuesday to suspend the project until the city attains the necessary funding. 

“It is with a heavy heart that we look at the current situation, and the fact that it is untenable to continue on the current track,” Superintendent Michael Richards said. The change order to suspend work, effective April 30 at 5 p.m., does include the stipulation that should the suspension last beyond a year, either the school board or the contractor, Nielsen Builders Inc., can choose to terminate the contract. 

But Richards was clear that the project is not over.

“This is a way of taking a step back, not stopping the project outright … and making another decision later,” Richards said.

Richards and the school board’s legal counsel will iron out details with Nielsen before taking the change order to the city council for approval. 

School board chair Andy Kohen told The Citizen after the meeting that this decision came after two closed sessions and “cooperative conversation” with city staff and the contractor. City Manager Eric Campbel had asked the board in a city council-school board liaison meeting earlier this month to consider delaying the project by a year.

“This is not something that we’ve done unilaterally,” Kohen said. “We have to deal with the reality that confronts us. We may not like it, but we have to deal with it as best and as rationally as we can.”

The proposed new school would have required the city take on about $100 million in new debt for the construction, site prep, furniture and technology. The city council had discussed raising the property tax by 13 cents per $100, but hadn’t made that decision before the pandemic ground the local economy to a halt. 

Tuesday’s decision to halt the new school construction is the latest example of how the pandemic has affected the community’s future — not just daily life this spring.  

“There are a lot of things that have happened in the last two months that break my heart, and this is one of them,” school board member Deb Fitzgerald said after the vote. “This is the approach that positions us best to wait and see.”

Revenue sources uncertain

Tracy Shaver, executive director of finance, updated the school board on the pandemic’s impact on the division’s budget for fiscal year 2021. 

With the city’s meals and sales tax revenue down, their contribution will almost definitely be lower than hoped for, Shaver said, although they still did not know by how much.

Contributions from the state government are likely to lag as well. Because Gov. Ralph Northam has removed some state funding increases for education from his proposed budget, Harrisonburg city schools will likely receive $1.27 million less in state revenue than expected for the fiscal year. Shaver said the district won’t know what that number is for certain until after the General Assembly approves the budget.

However, the district could receive federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed on March 27. Shaver said the Virginia Department of Education contacted the district last week to inform them they may receive approximately $1.2 million from the stimulus bill. 

“We have not received that funding yet. The state is still finalizing their application,” Shaver said. He expected Harrisonburg City Public Schools would receive those funds within the next two months. And the district could be eligible for other allocations and reimbursements from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management or the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund authorized by the CARES Act.

“Ultimately, we are going to have to readjust our budget over the next month or so,” Shaver said.

Also in the meeting:

  • The school board unanimously passed a revised grading policy in light of the pandemic. The policy establishes the default grading system as pass/fail for middle and high school students. Students in high school credit classes can request a letter grade for specific courses if they want so those grades could count towards their GPAs.
  • Richards announced that a virtual commencement for graduating seniors will take place at 10 a.m. on June 6, the date of the original event. An in-person ceremony will be planned later this summer if it is safe to do so, he said.
  • Toni Sheets, executive director of technology, presented an update to the division’s five-year Digital Expedition plan, which includes purchasing new Chromebooks for 7th and 9th graders, distributing older Chromebooks to 3rd through 5th graders, and purchasing Chromebook tablets for kindergarten through 2nd graders using federal Title I dollars or newly-passed CARES Act funds. The plan also includes outfitting 10 school buses with wifi routers which can then provide internet hubs in areas of the city where students have limited internet access.

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