Where we’re at…

Update: On Tuesday, December 5th, the School Board unanimously voted to go with the design presented by the architecture firm of Grimm + Parker (http://www.grimmandparker.com/). The design (which was not shown to the public yet) costs $76 million to be opened for the 2021-2022 school year. The design does not include a stadium. The piece of land was not announced.

The Next Step: City Council needs to approve it. The School Board will present their proposal next Tuesday, December 12th. City Council needs to be convinced to act NOW. If they don’t act now, the entire project could be delayed for a year.

How Can I Help? PLEASE show up at the Dec. 12th City Council meeting (7 p.m. Council Chambers). Also, contact us for FOR HHS2 swag (buttons, shirts, and yard signs), so that we physically demonstrate commitment to a second high school. Also, e-mail CC members to let them hear your voices:

Mayor Deanna Reed
Vice Mayor Richard Baugh
Council Member Christopher B. Jones
Council Member Ted Byrd
Council Member George Hirschmann

and submit an ecomment on the agenda item.

How much is reasonable? A Comparable Cost Analysis

Based on Barbara Reisner’s speech to City Council on 11/28, in response to the estimated costs of a new high school.

There has been a lot of talk about other communities building schools for less money. I want to provide some information on the real costs of schools. The take home message is this: schools are expensive to build.

If you project out to schools opening in 2021—which is the earliest a second high school could open—the average high school will cost about $107M, the median cost per square foot will be $314, and the median cost per student will be $66,000. If the School Board gets estimates anywhere around the $70M they requested, it will be a bargain for our community compared with what schools cost around the nation!

These numbers are based on numbers published in the 20th Annual School Construction Report (A special supplement to School Planning & Management), which was published in 2014. This document also reports average costs of schools in different regions of the country. Virginia is part of Region 3 (VA, DC, DE, MD, WV). In 2014 in our region:

  • the average high school was 300,000 ft.;
  • the average high school has 1,345 students;
  • the average cost of a new high school was $80M;
  • the median cost of a new high school was $225 per square foot; and
  • the median cost of a new high school was $63,000 per student.

Nationally, costs per square foot are slightly more and costs per student are lower.

The current HHS was built in 2004, since then, square footage costs have gone up by 57% and per student costs have gone up 88%. School inflation costs are higher in 2017 and will be even more in 2021.

It is hard to pull together accurate numbers based on what is available online, and it’s easy to cherry pick, but I’ve done my best to put together a snapshot of what things cost.¹ I projected the numbers to 2021 because that’s the earliest that a new high school could open.

People have mentioned that Wise County built two schools for a building only cost of $50M in 2013. These schools currently serve 1,300 students and were built for 1,700 students. These schools cost $194/sq ft to build. If you look at inflation to 2021, the school would cost $282/sq ft. Using 4.25% inflation from when school construction started, the schools would cost $70M today.

Although East Rock isn’t a Harrisonburg City school, it is a local school. The building cost was $40M in 2007 and it cost $186 per square foot to build in 2007. East Rock currently has just under 700 students, although core facilities were built for more than twice that number of students.² If East Rock were built for 2021, it would cost $319/sq ft.³ If you look at the opening student population, the school cost $59,000 per student occupying the school in 2007 dollars. The cost per student goes into six figures if you account for inflation!

Lynchburg’s Heritage High School, which opened 2016, cost $78M to build (total costs). Based on a 4.25% construction inflation rate, New Heritage HS would cost $96M if it opened in 2021. About 1,050 students are currently enrolled in this school built for 1,200 students.

I’ve focused on these smaller schools because Harrisonburg is a city that values community and values our children. I haven’t discussed the schools in Northern Virginia because these tend to be larger and they have larger tax bases than our community. Heritage HS shows that schools built today are expensive. Inflation is only headed up and if things progress quickly, HHS2 would open 5 years after Heritage. If Rockingham or Wise counties were building today, all would be looking at more expensive schools.  

I’d also like to emphasize that these counties built big—they built to accommodate future students. And I think it’s important to note that we are growing faster than either Wise or Rockingham counties. When Spotswood HS was overcrowded, Rockingham County invested the money needed to relieve the overcrowding and plan for their future.

School Board is so concerned about the costs to city taxpayers that I worry they will ask for too little. It’s important that we get good value for what we’re spending on the school, but I also worry that there is a false economy if we only think about the cost today and don’t look towards the future of our City. By building a school that will serve us in 10, 25 or 50 years, we will save money over the long term.

As I said at the start, schools are expensive. But they’re a critical investment in our community. The Space Study Committee told the School Board to look to the future and build beyond our current population so we don’t have to build another high school as soon as soon as we finish HHS2. When the time comes, I hope you’ll fund HHS2 based on what real schools cost, not outdated costs from a decade ago.

¹My numbers come from the 20th Annual School Construction report (which reports 2014 numbers), the Virginia Department of Education School Construction Cost Data and local media outlets (cited). I’ve taken the number of students enrolled from division websites and US News and World Reports School Rankings. I’m using a construction inflation rate from 2014-2021 as 4.25% per year.

²According to the DOE, the school was built for 1,570 students. It’s unclear if this is based on the core facilities or the SOL operating cap.

³Based on the school inflation costs to 2014 (Table 1) and a 4.25% rate for 2014-2020

Moving from one high school to two…can it be done?

Cathy Copeland’s speech to City Council on 11/28, in response to worried that moving from 1 high school to 2 would be difficult to do for our community. Short answer—it isn’t, but we need to move forward now rather than letting tensions continue to build.

Splitting into two high schools can be done. It does require hard work and dedication. It also requires that the town support the new high school and that mixed messages (the old will they/won’t they deal) eliminated.

In my examination, I concentrated on two high school districts. In Indiana, Hamilton Southeastern School District (Fishers, IN as the main city) had a massive population growth (10% every year since the mid-1990s). They built a $90 million high school in 2006; the growth still hasn’t slowed, and they are currently considering a third high school. Hamilton SE doesn’t have the same size restrictions to the city that Harrisonburg has; they are also one of the wealthiest suburbs of Indianapolis. So it has a different composition than Harrisonburg. But, in the mid-1990s, when the population started to grow drastically, they established the HSE Foundation, an initiative to have continuous money sources for the schools. The Foundation works to find and earn federal, state, and local grants. They have been extremely successful, and this could be a viable idea for Harrisonburg to start having a focus on how to bring outside money into the school district.

From Montana, there were actually a number of towns that had moved from 1 to 2 high schools within the last two decades. This article (https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/education/splitting-one-high-school-into-two-what-can-bozeman-learn/article_047c1c9f-f58c-55c7-afd8-202c83ae75b2.html) examined how Bozeman could learn from Kalispell, which built a second high school in 2004. Kalispell had difficulties that we don’t have. Their original high school was built in 1898 and, when a $50 million bond was issued for the construction for a new high school, $40 million went to the new high school and $5 million was designated for improvements to the original high school. In Harrisonburg, we wouldn’t need to worry that one high school was significantly newer than the other. The article gives suggestions for how to approach a transition from 1 to 2 high schools such as having an educational project team that planned for a year about the transition, timelines, communication to public, and more.

I found this research through several dedicated web searches and through discussion with my father, a retired public school administrator in Indiana. I think it also would be useful to look at Lawrence, KS. In 1997, they expanded to two high schools and, because the University of Kansas is within Lawrence, there are similarities to our Harrisonburg/JMU population. At the time of my speech to City Council, I had not fully researched this area.

I bring up these examples because Harrisonburg is not in a unique situation. We can learn from other school districts. The challenges they faced were not insurmountable. But they did have to carefully think about how to act. Our town will encounter problems (indeed, we already have) but we can’t let this dissuade us from a second high school, and we can’t let the worry slow down the construction on a second high school. It needs to be ready to open in the summer of 2021.

Imagine the research and the resources available when the school board and the city of Harrisonburg devotes time and energy to how to deal with a transition rather than kicking the decision down the street for another decade.

We need the City Council to make a definitive leap. Vote to go forward with the second high school so that we can go forward. ForHHS2.org lists why a mega-high school won’t work and why we need a second high school and why a grade realignment is not a feasible option and what comparable high schools cost, in addition to much more information. Every possible solution has been researched and debated, and our community deserves to move FORWARD rather than re-hashing why we need a second high school. Our City Council members need to deal with the issue, vote for a second high school, and let us move to the next step. Trust in the School Board; trust in our community; trust in education. Please, act NOW—in 2017.

How was your day? (at H.H.S.)

“How was your day?” I asked.

“We had another pep rally today,” she said.

“Oh, how was that?” I asked.

“Well, lots of kids tried to leave early again.”

“Why is that?” I questioned.

And she proceeded to tell me that she figured it was because they were worried about getting out of the gym in time to catch their buses at the end of the day. She doesn’t know that for a fact, but she just assumed. Okay. I didn’t say anything. Then, she stated matter-of-factly,

“Yeah, if there was a fire, there is no way everyone would get out of there in time.”


Whoa. I don’t know how I responded. I don’t remember because I was taken aback and had to absorb what she said. I was trying to picture myself at one of my high school pep rallies. I don’t remember being worried about leaving in time to catch a bus, but I guess I could have been if I felt rushed to get to the bus at the end of the school day. But, I know it did not cross my mind to think about whether everyone could get out in time if there was a fire! Students evacuate during drills, but maybe not all from the gym. Regardless of whether it is true or not, it gave me a glimpse of what it must feel like to live a large chunk of your day in an overcrowded school building.

I can’t imagine being at my own job and working through a crowd to go from point A to point B. I worry about the toll it is taking on her to lug around a heavy backpack all day because the students no longer have lockers. They don’t have time to get to them. It would just add more stress. I feel tired just thinking about carrying that many pounds. But high school students are young and strong, you might say. True (for some, not all), but it’s still not good for their backs! And, as a parent, you get used to learning about the little things that your teen does to adjust to the stress of an overcrowded school. Students at H.H.S. are already using great coping skills to compensate. They ARE resilient. They DO excel, but it is stressing them out in many cases.

They learn which teachers can be found at what times of day (before or after school) and whether they’ll even have time to talk to them (in many cases not, if there are many students or if the particular teacher is just too busy with other duties). The amount of time that teachers can be available is directly affected by how many students they have to teach. And my teen carefully weighs whether something is important enough or not to email teachers because she knows how busy they are.

The effects of an overcrowded school impact every decision: where to move within the building, how much time one has to get somewhere, and how much time teachers are available to ask one more question or figure out a problem together. Can you imagine the stress? I don’t think I can. I don’t remember worrying about any of those things in high school. We hung out at our lockers. We socialized and didn’t have to rush everywhere. I had extra time after lunch to go to my locker before my next class! My daughter probably can’t even fathom the “luxury” of that little bit of down time during transitions between classes.

How would you have responded if your teenager shared her thoughts about a “normal” pep rally?

Have you asked a H.H.S. student what it’s like to navigate around the school during their day?

If you have younger students, can you imagine what it will be like when the high school is further stretched beyond its capacity?

I want all students to feel safe at school. We all do. It’s just that overcrowding changes how students look at the world from inside their school building. Trapped is not a good feeling to anticipate if thinking of a potential fire. It is time for the adults in our community to fix the overcrowding in the high school as quickly as possible! Our kids deserve to focus less attention on getting from point A to point B, so they can set their sights on bigger goals. Let’s help them get there.

HHS2 Affordability and Taxes, part 2

Taxes, taxes and more taxes How do our taxes compare to other cities?

Comparing taxes in different cities can be hard.  Cities can use different strategies to raise the same revenue and they have different economic and demographic realities. However, it’s still helpful to see how we stack up. So, below is a table with some different ways of viewing our comparative local property tax burden. Anyone with with other or contradictory numbers are welcome to contribute.

Generally, Harrisonburg compares well with other cities (we’ll use Charlottesville, Winchester, Staunton, Lynchburg, Manassas, Roanoke and Fredericksburg). Our median property tax amount is the lowest among this group. Less than half of Charlottesville and about a third of Manassas. And, while the median offers a good way to compare, most of these cities have generally higher property values which produce more revenue at the same rate. So, we can also take a look at how much we pay in property taxes as a percent of our income and as a percent of our property values. In every case, Harrisonburg residents pay less than any of those cities – by a fair amount.

That’s not our full tax picture, though. We should really be looking at our effective tax rate – meaning we need to include other city taxes we pay. One tax is the personal property tax. Harrisonburg’s personal property tax rate ($3.50 per $100 of assessed value) is lower than all the other cities but Staunton and Roanoke (by a small amount). So when factoring this tax, the difference in the lower rate Harrisonburg residents pay and the higher rate of other cities is even greater.

Again, this just gives us an idea of our capacity and should be combined with smart decisions.

When taxes go up won’t people and businesses leave the city if our property taxes increase again?

While tax increases affect us all, they do not always affect us all equally. We all pay the same tax rates for our services like water, electricity, trash collection and restaurants. In Virginia, however, property taxes offer a city the opportunity to provide tax relief to lower income residents, seniors and those with disabilities and veterans by putting caps on the % of income homeowners pay in property taxes or even tax deferments until a property is sold. Harrisonburg provides some tax relief for property and personal property taxes for qualifying residents. There are more tools for this that Harrisonburg can use, though.

As far as people and business leaving, there is no evidence  that shows property tax increases used to fund school construction causes a fleeing of people or businesses. The only evidence points to increased value in the city and residents and businesses staying put.

For Harrisonburg, the last property tax increase and a possible additional increase does not appear to have negatively affected the city or slowed the tide of people and companies moving into Harrisonburg. Actually, since the city’s last tax increase and start of discussions of a new HS, housing prices have increased, demand is high and supply is low. It appears people are moving in, not out.

Now what? What does this mean about building a new school?

This blog just addresses issues around taxes and affordability. It doesn’t address the cost and construction of a new school nor issues about our education system and priorities. Those will be taken up in the next blogs. However, trying to keep discussions focused on a topic at a time might be helpful and increase the chances we’ll find agreements.

So, the data and analysis seems to show that:

Harrisonburg’s credit is good and stable, even when taking into account borrowing significant money for a new school.

While raising taxes will be necessary with a new HS, our taxes still compare favorably with other similar cities, even with an increase.

Increasing property taxes for school construction can result in immediate increased home values that are greater than the costs and the city has tools to lessen the burden on lower income residents.

Increasing property taxes for school construction does not negatively affect the funding for other important city services or for school operations (teachers).

Increasing property taxes for school construction does not, and has not in the past in Harrisonburg, resulted in people and businesses leaving the city.

None of this suggests that building a new HS should be approached with anything other than a critical, informed and prudent approach.

HHS2 Affordability and Taxes, part 1

Yard signs and memes aren’t the basis for good decision-making; data, information and discussion are. We should all want as complete and accurate a picture as possible, since it’s our money being spent. So, let’s take a look at some numbers related to Harrisonburg’s taxes and potential capacity to fund a new high school.

First, before we begin, this information is aggregate data for Harrisonburg. It’s not meant to imply anyone’s personal financial situation or ability to handle tax increases. Second, keeping taxes as low as possible is the goal for which we all agree – just as long as we properly fund our city services and programs, which is where many disagreements begin. Lastly, certainly there’s more data for people to add to this discussion. Some of it may contradict or be corrections to what’s here; that’s welcome and constructive, as long as you can show a credible source (which doesn’t mean “I heard that” or “I just know we’re going bankrupt”). Remember, this is just about the funding issues, not the construction nor education issues.

Credit and borrowing

The city just can’t afford a 17¢ tax increase. I hear that borrowing for a HS will cause our credit rating to drop.

Currently, Harrisonburg has an ‘Aa’ credit rating and the credit agencies view it as steady. (Davenport and Company analysis for Harrisonburg) That’s good and not many cities have higher ratings. It reflects a history of good financial management and responsible city operations (schools, water, parks, streets, etc). It means the city can issue a bond (borrow money) at a good interest rate. In receiving that rating, the credit agencies acknowledge the city’s need for additional money for school facilities and determined that borrowing up to $100m by 2019 and $160m by 2021 would be “manageable” for the city. Even with that potential borrowing, the agencies also went as far to suggest our rating could increase if our local economy sees the same steady increases as our peer cities. It could also decrease with mismanagement, but that’s not our history. The speculation that our city can’t afford that tax increase does not seem to be shared by the experts.

It should be noted that the 17¢ increase is based on a conservative estimate for Harrisonburg from more than a year ago. It’s certainly wise to budget using conservative estimates. However, interest rates for city borrowing change over time. Currently, it looks like the city might be able to borrow at a rate around 25% less (3% vs 4%). However, as I’m not a city bond expert, I welcome any corrections to that.

This is not a recommendation or endorsement for maxing out the city “credit card” or for making anything but the wisest possible education investments. What we can borrow is not the same as what we should or need to borrow. Whatever we borrow, we owe back, with interest. However, it’s more important to understand context than to just follow rhetoric.


Education funding is not just spending; it’s actually an investment. It’s considered one of the best investments a community can make. (National Bureau of Economic Research report on Value of School Facilities) Of course, it’s how you spend that determines a good investment, not how much you spend. And, spending on education includes many things from teachers to textbooks to facilities.

So, what’s the benefit of spending on education facilities? From the research that’s available, the financial gain for individual homeowners from educational facilities investments far outweighs the costs, and the effect is immediate and lasts. Additionally, the research shows possible academic achievement gains from new facilities, resulting from reduced overcrowding, less student and teacher absences and a healthier learning environment. The verdict may still be out on some of this, but there doesn’t appear to be research pointing to education facilities investment being anything other than beneficial to students, local economies and residents.

Of course, another benefit of investing in needed school construction is that, during the years of construction, it provides a solid boost to the local economy through well-paying jobs for the construction and related activities

One last important note. Investment in new school facilities does not cause a drop in funding for regular school operations (teachers, text books, etc) nor harm educational achievement in a district. It’s likely to support educational gains. Also, nothing (that I’ve found) shows that it has a negative impact on future funding of other city services (i.e., law enforcement, fire and rescue or school operations – which would include teacher salary raises). If anyone has contrary information to offer on this (other than their hunch), it would be welcome.

The proposition is not students or facilities. It’s not facilities or other city services.