Council Approves $104.8M New High School

By LAINE GRIFFIN
Daily News-Record  12/11/19
 
City Council voted Tuesday to build a second high school all at once to open in August 2022, with a guaranteed maximum construction price of $87.2 million.
The decision, which followed about an hourlong public hearing, is expected to come with a $104.8 million bond.
Mayor Deanna Reed and Councilmen Sal Romero and Chris Jones were in favor, while Councilmen George Hirschmann and Richard Baugh voted against it.
The public hearing before the vote drew 35 speakers. Five were against both options council was considering.
The second option was to build the school in phases, with the sports fields, auxiliary gym and stadium to be added on later.
The maximum construction price for the second option was $80.6 million, with an estimated bond of $97.1 million.
During the hearing, Kathleen Holler of the Harrisonburg Education Association said council should have planned for the new school a long time ago.
“The tax burden will continue to increase if something is not done now,” she said. “The cost of building a new high school increases each day, and our council continues to delay construction.”
To cover the bond payments, city officials have estimated the real estate tax would need to increase by around 13 cents. Currently, the rate is 86 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The increase would bring it to 99 cents per $100 of assessed value, but the rate could go up further based on other needs the city may face.
The average value of a home in the city is $196,000, with an annual tax bill of $1,720, or $143 a month.
The estimated tax bill for an average home would be $1,980, or $165 a month, with a 13-cent increase.
Supporters of building a new school say no more time can be wasted, as Harrisonburg High School is well overcapacity and only growing.
Carolyn Poirot, a Harrisonburg City Public Schools educator, said her three children, who are HHS alumni, told her students needed to sit on the floor when they ate lunch.
Although she was in favor of building a new school, she asked council to think in practical terms.
“Is there any way at this point we can save money on the actual architecture of the building?” she asked.
The city has already spent $8 million on the school: $5 million on the land, which is south of Stone Spring Road between Interstate 81 and South Main Street, and another $3 million for an interim agreement with Nielsen Builders Inc. for the design fees.
Elizabeth Jertinski, who works for the school division, said the issue is about students’ education and future.
“We are not talking about money. It’s about the students,” she said. “Vote for students, education and the future of our amazing city and its fantastic amenities.”
City resident Bucky Berry said that if $104.8 million is borrowed, low-income residents won’t be able to pay rent and will end up on the street.
“I’m not knocking on the schools,” he said. “I think you’re making a big mistake and should think long and hard.”
Pete Johnson said children without a productive education will end up in the criminal justice system.
“We will have to come back having to ask you for more space at the
jail ‘cause that’s where kids will end up,” he said, adding that building the school in phases be more expensive in the long run.
Following the hearing, Jones said that while many people showed up to voice their thoughts on the new school, he has spent more time in meetings regarding the Middle River Regional Jail and its expansion than the new school.
When it comes to the school, he said, it comes down to cost, quality and schedule.
“We don’t want to sacrifice quality, and the schedule has driven up the cost,” he said, adding that he isn’t “in love” with the land that was bought for the new school.
“There are other places we should consider,” said Jones, who voted in favor of buying the land for the school in summer 2018. “I know how bad you want the school to open in 2022, but if you’ve got a couple more weeks, instead of breaking ground this month, I’d like to vet a couple more sites.”
Reed said it’s council’s duty to look at the big picture, and council knows a second high school is needed.
“The issue with me came with the cost of it, and I’ve been honest about that,” she said. “It is my hope that we could work together as a community for the better of our kids.”
Hirschmann voted against the new school because of the price tag and the squeeze it will put on the city budget.
With the school being built all at once, the city will have $27 million remaining in debt capacity.
The city’s current debt capacity is $127 million.
“I would like to hear of other possibilities. Look into other sites, which would be more beneficial to put a school,” he said, adding that the $104.8 million won’t be the final cost because other things, such as operational costs, will come up later.
“In the long run, a separate school works,” he said. “I would just feel better when we stick that shovel in the ground that we are sticking it in the right ground.”
With council’s vote, Nielsen Builders Inc. is expected to break ground on the new school Monday.