School board, residents urge city council to ‘get on board’ with new school construction

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

After discussing the addition of more mobile units in Harrisonburg High School’s parking lot to ease overcrowding, several school board members on Tuesday called on the city council to more fully commit to re-starting the new high school’s construction. 

Specifically, they suggested lowering the proposed financial benchmarks the city would have to hit before the city would raise taxes to help cover bond payments on the roughly $100 million project.

Harrisonburg High School was already overcrowded before the pandemic and will need even more space in the fall when it returns to operating fully in person. The school board ran through logistics during its meeting about how to adhere to COVID-19 spatial guidelines, which uncorked some frustration about uncertainty over the city’s commitment to the new high school. 

According to the CDC, schools must maintain at least three feet between students in classrooms while masked and at least six feet apart when in areas, such as the cafeteria, while students are unmasked and eating lunch. To comply, Harrisonburg High School will need two additional mobile units in addition to the 18 already on the property. These units will serve as common areas and will be utilized as locations for students to eat. 

Craig Mackail, the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ chief operating officer, said the additional 60×72 feet units can hold about 120 students each. The units will cost about $200,000 to install, and the annual rent will be $103,920 more than what the school is now paying for its units. 

Mackail told the board that coming up with ways to utilize space at the high school has been challenging. 

“We’re running out of ideas, but we’ll figure it out,” Mackail said. 

With more students expected to be in the mobile units at Harrisonburg High School in the fall, the school board requested restrooms installed outside so students won’t have to trek in and out of the school building. 

Superintendent Michael Richards said these new units are just a “Band-Aid” for the high school’s lack of space. 

“We’ve always needed more space,” Richards said. “Now, we’re desperate for it in the pandemic.”

Construction of the new high school — with an expected cost of around $100 million — has been paused since last year after the pandemic eroded the city’s tax base.  

The city’s contract with Nielsen Builders, Inc. to restart construction on the second high school expired April 30, Richards said the company is waiting for the federal funds to come in to resume the project. Richards said he is hopeful construction can resume by June 1. 

The school board plans to divert most of the federal stimulus funds the district is expected to receive toward the new school’s construction — pending Department of Education spending regulations. 

But school board members also urged the city council to re-evaluate the financial benchmarks the city’s tax revenue would need to meet in order to approve raising taxes to pay for the project. The council proposed those benchmarks at its April 13 meeting. 

Richards said that federal funds should cover about six months of construction, but in order to guarantee uninterrupted construction, the city needs to discuss a potential tax increase within the next four months. 

“If they start talking about bonding at the end of those six months, there’s going to be two (or) three months pause or more,” Richards said. “I’d like for them to start talking about it earlier.”

Many board members read their own prepared statements and discussed their frustrations and concerns about the city council pushing back the tax increase. 

Board member Deb Fitzgerald said it’s time to start working as a team. 

“I’m really trying to fight this growing sense that it’s us-versus-them: our projects and [their] projects — it’s all of our projects,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m passionate about it because it’s true.”

One Harrisonburg resident on Tuesday made the first live, in-person public comment since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and she spent it thanking the school board for its persistence with restarting construction on the second high school and making accommodations to the current high school. But she said the city council needs to “get on board.”

Andy Kohen, a school board member, echoed that sentiment.  

“Their actions do not reflect their words,” Kohen said of city council members’ support for the second high school. 

Some members, like Obie Hill, expressed optimism that once Richards makes his presentation at the May 11 city council meeting about why the city should revisit its benchmarks in four months instead of six, the council will come around. 

Richards said he’s hopeful that construction will resume soon. 

“This has been going on for over a decade,” Richards said “People are feeling very frustrated and very emotional about it.” 

The school board addressed several other items at the meeting, including:

  • The board voted unanimously to give school employees bonus payments as a result of a 3% decrease in expenditures and a 3.5% increase in revenue. Full-time employees will receive $2,000, part-time employees will receive $1,000 and temporary service employees — substitutes or those who have worked at least half the year — will also get $1,000.
  • The board unanimously approved a resolution to install solar panels at Bluestone Elementary. 
  • The Instructional Policy Review committee brought forward several policies for the board to approve. The board unanimously approved the update to the summer school policy that was created in 1991, along with the class size policy, which now focuses on the safety, education, and social and emotional needs of students.
  • A summer school update was given at the meeting by the chief academic officer. Students may attend one, two, three or four weeks of summer school, and the numbers of registered participants are up compared to previous years. 

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