New high school might open in 2023. But could a funding source make the price go up?

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg’s second high school could open its doors in the fall of 2023, if school district administrators, city staff and the contractor can all agree on terms to restart construction in the next two to three months. 

Construction will be funded in part by a four-cent increase to the real estate tax rate that the Harrisonburg City Council passed last week. Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen after Tuesday’s school board meeting that he would soon discuss with city officials a timeline for issuing a bond to pay for the new school’s construction. City Manager Eric Campbell and Tracy Shaver, the city school districts’ chief financial officer, would be involved in those talks.

Earlier this year, city staff had suggested waiting to see six months of lodging and meals tax revenue and six months of employment rate rebound before issuing the bond.

Richards said the division can also use federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act towards the school’s construction “indirectly,” by putting that money toward operational costs that are normally paid for by the city. The savings in operational costs could be put toward construction. Officials and the contractor estimated the school’s cost to be about $100 million, which includes construction, furniture and modifications to the roads at the site, which is between South Main Street and I-81. 

If the district used federal money “directly” to pay for construction, Richards said the Davis-Bacon Act would come into play – which essentially says that when federal funds are used to construct public buildings, the contractors and subcontractors must be paid “no less than the locally prevailing wages.” For Harrisonburg, those wages are calculated by Northern Virginia standards, which would raise the project’s price tag.

“We want to throw everything we can at this project,” he said during the meeting. 

In terms of funding sources, it’s “not ‘either or,’ but ‘both and,'” said School board member Deb Fitzgerald.

The City-School Liaison Committee, which includes school district leaders and some city leaders, meets next Tuesday, June 7. 

Students ask to be rid of masks outside

During the public comment period, several city students, parents and educators urged the school board to let students take their masks off when outside, especially during physical activity. Eight students, most of them 5th graders, took turns addressing the council. 

The mask “makes it very hard, especially since I like running around outside,” said one student. 

“I get really sweaty and it’s hard to breathe, so I don’t like it,” added another. 

Richards responded after their comments, saying that Gov. Ralph Northam has kept pandemic-related restrictions in place for schools through the end of the academic year. 

After that, though, “I don’t think we’re going to be wearing masks over the summer. I can’t imagine it,” Richards said, to applause from many of the roughly 15 people at the meeting in the city council’s chambers. 

Fewer restrictions during the summer enrichment program would be a stepping stone to a “full reopening” in the fall, which Richards announced will include having students in classrooms five days a week.

“It will be a normal year, which is a wonderful thing,” he said. 

Also in the meeting:

  • Richards announced that the School Resource Officer (SRO) task force would likely not have final recommendations on the officers’ role in the schools before the start of the 2021-22 school year. 
  • Richards introduced four new administrators to the school board, all of whom have been promoted from within the division: Leatrice Woods, now assistant principal of Skyline Middle School; Jennifer Diggs, now director of Great Oak Academy; Michelle Edwards, now coordinator for equity; and Don Burgess, now dean of students.

Editor’s note, 3:43 p.m.: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly listed Tracy Shaver’s title.

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