Pandemic prompts different schools of thought about new building

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

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Almost six months since construction on Harrisonburg’s second high school was suspended, the project remains in limbo, with no timeline yet established to resume work. COVID-19,  though, has prompted competing takeaways about the wisdom of moving forward. 

Education leaders say more space to relieve overcrowding is even more important, while some city leaders are concerned about the project’s cost and effect on taxpayers in light of the pandemic’s economic hit.  

The Harrisonburg City Public School board voted in April to put the project on hold for a year, after which the school board or contractor could decide to terminate the contract. 

Superintendent Michael Richards said Wednesday the city council-school board liaison committee resumed discussions about it at the group’s last meeting but have made no concrete plans.

“It looks like we won’t have a good sense of the bond market or city revenues until the end of the calendar year,” Richards said. 

The project, which will cost the city approximately $100 million in new debt for construction, site preparation, roadwork, technology and furniture, would require the city council to raise the property tax rate to cover the debt payments. In the spring, the council discussed raising the rate from 86 cents per $100 of assessed value to 99 cents per $100, but after the pandemic hit, City Manager Eric Campbell said he was “extremely uncomfortable” with implementing that increase.

That doesn’t appear to have changed. 

“COVID-19’s impact on our city and our residents has no expiration date that we are aware of, and mitigating the hardships our residents and businesses are experiencing right now because of it is our highest priority,” Michael Parks, the city’s director of communications, told The Citizen in an email.

The project’s contractor, Nielsen Builders, Inc., has the right to withdraw from the project if the city isn’t ready to move forward this coming spring. But CEO and President Tony Biller told The Citizen that the company doesn’t have any set plans for that scenario. 

“I guess we’ll deal with that at the time, but right now the hope is that it starts up again,” Biller said. “We periodically contact them, but I think they have their hands full right now.” 

School Board Chair Andy Kohen said he understands the need for this suspension as both a board member and an economist. 

“There’s way too much uncertainty for anybody to be able to commit now,” Kohen said. With that in mind, the project is “not off the burner, but to a back burner for the time being … it’s not on the immediate radar of either the board or the [division’s] central administration, but it will be soon.”

City Council Member George Hirschmann, who’s running for re-election this fall, told The Citizen he’d like to take this opportunity to reconsider constructing an annex instead of a separate second high school.

“There’s a possibility you’re going to see a lot more virtual education, which would … relieve, I believe, some of the crowding in the high school. So then you scratch your head and you wonder, do we need a high school?” Hirschmann said. 

But, as School Board Member Nick Swayne said, “eventually, we’re going to go back.” 

Kohen echoed that sentiment. 

“We’re doing the very best we can, I think, and we’re learning along the way … to provide the educational setting and opportunity for the children of Harrisonburg,” he said. “But we’re under no illusions that it’s a perfect substitute for in-person learning.”

Swayne is familiar with the annex concept. He’s been on the board since 2008 and participated in the many conversations that exhausted the options for relieving the high school’s overcrowding problem. Swayne said “a lot of folks latched onto a price tag” of $55 million to build an annex, but that wouldn’t include additional costs such as purchasing land or updating nearby roads.

“We never drove down that path long enough to get to the total cost of the project,” Swayne explained – and that’s in part because an annex would only accommodate 600 additional students. Harrisonburg High school had 1,881 enrolled last fall – which was already more than 500 students past capacity.

So by the time an annex would be built, “you’re at capacity,” Swayne said. Data presented by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service last year projected Harrisonburg would have more than 2,100 high school students in the city by 2025.

The extent of that overcrowding will also affect how the existing high school begins to reopen whenever the pandemic begins to subside in the area. 

Richards also presented CDC data in the school board’s Tuesday meeting that provides public health metrics for when the division could safely implement a hybrid education model, with up to half the student body in school buildings at a time on alternating days. But Richards told The Citizen afterward that Harrisonburg High School is not large enough to accommodate even half of its students while they’re social distancing. 

“I think the pandemic has really shone even more light on the need for more space at the high school,” he said.

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