Group recommends ‘South Ridge’ as HHS2’s name and suggests the school board consider renaming the existing Harrisonburg High School

A slide from the new high school’s naming committee shows its recommendation for the name with the architect’s rendering. (Courtesy of Cathy Copeland)

By Ryan Alessi, publisher

As the new high school takes shape on its southern Harrisonburg site, the committee tasked with suggesting its name recommended calling it “South Ridge High School” with black and red as its two main colors. 

The Harrisonburg School Board, however, could opt to go different directions over the coming weeks. And the naming committee also encouraged the board to consider whether to rename Harrisonburg High School so that one school isn’t more associated with the city’s identity than the other. 

“Is it equitable to have a Harrisonburg High School and an other high school?” as Cathy Copeland, who chaired the 14-person  naming committee, described it when presenting the recommendations Tuesday night. “The question … is really thrown back to you.”

The board meets at 5:30 p.m. April 16 for a work session at Stone Spring Elementary School that will include a discussion about the names and a selection of the board’s top three choices for what to call the new high school, which is slated to open in fall 2024. And the plan is for the board to make its final pick at its May 3 meeting.  

Copeland said 64% of the committee preferred renaming the current high school to use a name that complimented the new high school’s moniker. The naming committee included community members, students, educators, as well as Mayor Deanna Reed and Vice Mayor Sal Romero. 

“I’m not sure I’m in favor of changing HHS1,” said board member Obie Hill, “only because the people who attended that school and graduated from that school — there’s that tie-in.” 

Nick Swayne, the school board chair, told The Citizen after the meeting that he’s open to changing the existing high school’s name because he understands the argument about having a Harrisonburg-centric high school and “something else.” But he said, at this point, he hasn’t taken a position. 

Board member Kaylene Seigle said she’s leaning in one direction – but wouldn’t say which. She said she wants to hear what her fellow board members are thinking about that. Seigle said she preferred the name “Rocktown” for the new high school, which happened to be the most popular name submitted by about community members through a survey. 

The committee’s top ten names after narrowing down 1,500 submissions from community members.

Copeland said “Rocktown” made up 13% of the 1,500 submissions from 550 people. But Rocktown came in third from the bottom of the committee’s rankings, Copeland said. 

Instead, the committee’s top choices after “South Ridge” were: Valley View High School, Newtown High School and either “United” or “Unity” High School.

And while the committee offered red and black as the new school’s colors, Copeland said the group also liked the idea of adopting the green, blue and orange of the “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” signs, which were developed at Harrisonburg’s Immanuel Mennonite Church. 

The committee selected black and red as a top choice but suggested the council also consider the green, blue and orange from the signs born in Harrisonburg.

And Copeland, a community activist and former state House of Delegates candidate, reminded the school board members that the committee’s suggestions were just that — and the board can make a different choice. 

“We’re not going to be broken hearted – but we’ll remember it,” she joked. 

A drone shot from above the new high school’s construction site in south Harrisonburg shows the progress in early April 2022. (Courtesy of Harrisonburg City Public Schools)

New school’s “topping out” ceremony May 6 

Meanwhile, the new high school’s construction is nearing a milestone. Contractors expect to place the last steel beam at the top of the main building in a month. 

As part of what’s called a “topping out ceremony” at 3 p.m. May 6, people can sign their names onto the beam before it’s hoisted up and installed, said Craig Mackail, the district’s chief operating officer. 

Mackail showed board members the latest photos from the site. The main building’s ground floor will have polished concrete floor and some of the interior walls are already going up. 

Superintendent Michael Richards has been working with a group of students who are putting together contents of a time capsule that will be buried in the new high school’s courtyard. And Mackail said the construction company will place a marker for it so students can walk by it every day on their way to class. 

Electric school buses on the way?  

The city could be in line to buy two new electric-powered school buses. 

Gerald Gatobu, director of Harrisonburg’s Department of Public Transportation that oversees school buses, said his agency has applied for a grant through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s “Clean School Bus Program.” 

The grant would reimburse Harrisonburg for the cost difference between two diesel-fueled school buses, which are around $100,000 each, and two electric ones, which can be $400,000 each, Gatobu said. 

While the transportation department is waiting to hear about its grant request, Gatobu said his agency is laying the groundwork by working with the Harrisonburg Electric Commission to assess what the department will need to provide enough power to charge the buses. And the department might have to upgrade the central garage to accommodate electric-powered buses, he told the board. 

Also at Tuesday’s meeting: 

  • The school board voted unanimously to start the process to receive bids from solar installation companies to place solar panels on the district’s central office building. “I think it’s important for the process to start,” said board member Andy Kohen, who pushed for the board to take that step. 
  • And the board approved sending the city council a place-holder 2022-23 budget of more than $107.1 million — a nearly 15% increase over this year’s $93.2 million budget. But the board expects to have to amend that once the Virginia General Assembly finalizes the amount of state education spending as part of ongoing budget negotiations in Richmond. 
A slide from the Harrisonburg City Public Schools showing the initial budget proposal to the city council.

Clarification: The first sentence of the item on the electric school buses was updated to make it clear that the city would purchase the buses.

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