City OKs $ 5M To Buy High School Land

  • Share:
July 11, 2018
Daily News-Record  7/11/18
HARRISONBURG — Compared to the decision to build a second city high school, purchasing the land for it was a breeze.
After a relatively uneventful and short public hearing, City Council unanimously voted to spend $5 million to buy a 60-acre parcel from James Madison University at its meeting Tuesday.
The vote makes the purchase all but a done deal. Council must hold a second reading and vote at its July 24 meeting, but those actions are almost always mirror the first vote.
The purchase price doesn’t include the estimated $25,000 in closing costs.
The parcel will serve as the location of the city’s second high school, addressing overcrowding at Harrisonburg High School.
HHS opened in 2005 with a capacity for 1,360 students but now has about 1,800 enrolled.
Last week, City Council and the School Board announced the decision to acquire the property between Interstate 81 and South Main Street in the southern portion of Harrisonburg. The property can be accessed via South Main Street and Stone Spring Road. The site is next to the Harrisonburg Public Utilities and Public Works departments off Beery Road to the north.
Cathy Copeland of the group FORHHS2 spoke during the hearing, telling council the city must still take action to address overcrowding at the existing school. FORHHS2 is an organization of residents concerned about the overcrowding at HHS who pushed for a second high school to be built as soon as possible.
“The need is very real,” Copeland said.
Mayor Deanna Reed, program manager for On The Road Collaborative, said she’s in the school frequently and sees the need for more space.
“It might not be your kids, but there are kids that are sitting on the floor eating lunch for 22 minutes,” Reed said. “So we had to do something.”
In October, the School Board selected, but didn’t disclose, the location as its preferred site following discussions in closed session.
The issue of a second high school has been a hot-button topic for more than two years, with opponents saying the tax increase to pay for the facility is too much of a burden on Harrisonburg residents and businesses. Proponents, though, argue the city could not afford to wait to build a new school.
Tuesday’s decision was the first on the school since a divided council voted 3-2 in January to fund the estimated $76 million facility, with an opening slated for fall 2023, and asked staff to begin the land acquisition process.
Democratic Councilman Richard Baugh joined Republican Councilman Ted Byrd and Councilman George Hirschmann, an independent, in delaying the opening date. Democratic Councilman Chris Jones and Reed voted against it because they wanted to open the school two years earlier, as the School Board had wanted. The estimate was based on the board’s plan to open in 2021 and didn’t include the cost of land acquisition or a football stadium. School officials have said a stadium isn’t part of the proposal over concerns for expenses. Superintendent Scott Kizner, however, seemed to backtrack last week saying the school will have other athletic facilities, and that a decision on a football stadium won’t be made until city officials determine its cost.
Kizner also said last week that the division will try not to replicate programs and facilities between the two high schools. Because they’re only 3 miles apart, students could be transported to the existing high school for certain activities, such as junior ROTC or fine arts programs.
Paloma Saucedo, who is running for one of two seats on council as an independent, urged the city to make sure the schools would be equal. “I want to make sure that we’re going to have a second high school that’s going to offer all the exact same programs to all the students where all the students are going to have an opportunity to succeed regardless of what school they go to,” she said. Jones said those discussions will continue.
“We don’t want to have a school of have and have nots,” he said. “We have to have faith that they’re going to have good balance.”
Jones also said the purchase was beneficial to the city because the land was already exempt from taxation under JMU’s ownership. Now, instead of sitting vacant, it can be put to use.
“It’s not like you’re losing land that could be taxed or built for residential or commercial,” he said. “So you didn’t lose anything. In fact you gained back state land for our own public use.”
Byrd questioned if the School Board was sold on the property and price.Reed and Jones said all options have been thoroughly vetted and the decision is the best available.
“This was the best site that we both, especially the School Board, agreed on,” she said. “There’s a lot of wins. ”School Board members Deb Fitzgerald, Nick Swayne and Kaylene Seigle were present, but didn’t address council during the public hearing.

Harrisonburg City Council listens as a speaker comments during a public hearing Tuesday on purchasing land for a second high school.