I am a JMU graduate who moved back to Harrisonburg after working and going to grad school in Washington DC and getting married to my husband Chris, who works at JMU. We moved to our current home in Old Town in 1997, and over the years we have seen so many positive changes in Harrisonburg. The revitalization of downtown, the growth of the local economy, and the way longtime residents and new arrivals all embrace our identity as The Friendly City make this a great place to live. It seems every other week, Harrisonburg is featured on a new “Best Small Cities for [mountain biking, restaurants, etc]” list. We enjoy very low unemployment. No wonder our area is growing!
In 2007, we sent our first child to kindergarten at Spotswood Elementary School, and a year later, our younger child followed her big sister into SES. With very few exceptions, we have been so happy with the quality of education our children received in Harrisonburg City Schools. As they progressed through Spotswood, and then Thomas Harrison Middle School, we were involved in the PTA / PTO groups. I have served on the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee, the Gifted Education Advisory Committee, an ad hoc School Start Times Committee, and am in my third year on the board of Harrisonburg Education Foundation. Our daughters are set to graduate from HHS in 2020 and 2021.
For a decade now, I have seen enrollment numbers and projections. I know there are those in our community who look at the Weldon Cooper projections and think maybe they’ve been inflated by someone who has an agenda, perhaps to justify and then benefit from the large construction contracts at stake in the decision to build a new school. I am here to tell you, I have been looking at these numbers for ten years, and our growth has consistently EXCEEDED the projections. I would consider those projections to be MINIMUMS in terms of probable growth. All you need do is visit HHS at passing time between classes, and you can see the very real effects of the overcapacity that is reaching crisis proportions as a building designed for 1350 students nears the 1800 mark. We know that today’s 5th-8th grade classes add up to over 2,000 kids, and those kids are heading for HHS. Experience tells us those classes will grow in the meantime, not shrink.
What are we going to do? We can allow the overcrowding to degrade the educational environment and threaten the safety of our students, or we can increase capacity to relieve this unsustainable situation. I cannot imagine this community choosing the former. In recent years, Harrisonburg City Schools has opened four new facilities in response to this rapid pace of growth. First the Smithland Elementary / Skyline Middle School campus, followed this year by the opening of Bluestone Elementary and Elon Rhodes Early Learning Center for our preschoolers. It is time to turn our focus to our high school capacity. A second high school in Harrisonburg City is something I consider an inevitability.
At the same time, I certainly want our city council and school board to be fiscally responsible and make wise use of resources. There are three factors in play that allow for creative solutions and will demand compromise:
1) The cost of the new high school. The most recent high school project listed in the Virginia Department of Education’s construction project database is a high school for 1,926 kids in Loudoun County built two years ago that cost $96 million. We know that there are costs related to the land itself, the preparation of the site for water, sewer, and electrical needs, the design of the building, the construction, and the furnishings—everything from books for the library to computers, science labs, gymnasiums, and of course desks and whiteboards in classrooms. The current figure being thrown around of $100 million is a lot of money to be sure, and we are certainly not opposed to suggestions for how to reduce and contain those costs. The project has not gone out for a formal bidding process yet. One suggestion I’ve heard is to simply re-use the design of the current high school, which the city schools have already paid for after all, which could cut $20 million off the project price tag from the outset. I’ve also heard the suggestion that the two schools share the current sports facilities at the high school, alternating home and away games, and simply create practice fields at the new high school. I am in favor of solutions that allow us to get to Yes on a new high school and I hope that all parties involved remember that Job 1 is to preserve the quality of secondary education by relieving the overcrowding crisis.
2) The available bond capacity of the city. I learned yesterday that the Commonwealth of Virginia will split the costs of constructing new jails 50/50 with localities, but they give zero help funding new schools. That, to me, is insane. But it is the reality of our situation and we have to depend on ourselves to fund this project. I understand that Harrisonburg has used a chunk of its bond capacity in recent years, and we don’t want to completely max it out, leaving no cushion for unanticipated needs. I admit to knowing less than I’d like to about the ways that municipalities gather funding, but again, I have a hard time believing there is simply no solution whatsoever to this problem. What have other cities in Virginia (and states with similar funding mechanisms) done in our situation? We can’t be the only ones facing this. I’m glad our Council is careful with the budget, but there has to be a way to get to Yes.
3) The willingness of the community to raise taxes to solve this problem. This is touchy, I get it. People need numbers. They want to know which taxes are being considered, because it can’t all come from one pool of revenue. They want to know the rate of increase needed in each tax category to make up the difference between our borrowing capacity and the cost of the project. I would love to see an A, B, and C option and get public comment about the good and bad points of each. I personally would be willing to pay more taxes to fund a solution to the overcrowding crisis, but I realize that we have low income families and seniors who would need to be exempt from such a tax increase. Can we find a way to get to Yes? I believe that we can.
In all three areas, we have room for compromise and creativity. We have room to respect the views of those who fear the consequences of what they see as profligate spending on new facilities. We have room to insist that our teachers have the facilities they need to do the essential work of educating our students in classrooms that are not full to bursting, that are not subject to the chaos of too many students in too little space.
There is one other factor in the equation. Perhaps you’ve already thought of it, and I have too, but it is the one area in which I and many other like-minded parents, teachers and community members absolutely will NOT compromise, and that is TIMING. We have known this day was coming for a decade. The growth is real, and it will continue. We need to come to agreement on a solution to the overcrowding NOW. Every day that goes by under the current circumstances is a lost opportunity to protect the educational quality that earned HHS a spot on US News and World Report’s list of the best high schools in the nation. Our job now, as responsible citizens, is to figure this out. I believe that it is possible to care about both our students and the fiscal health of our community—indeed, we must do both. If we delay, if we argue, if we are stubborn, if we get stuck, first our kids and then our community will pay the price. Delay is disaster.