The long-awaited independent third party evaluation of a facility assessment and master plan study related to Halifax County High School received a thorough vetting at the board of supervisors meeting on Monday.
The jury is still out, however, on whether the high school will be renovated or torn down and rebuilt, but Randy S. Jones, architect and CEO of OWPR Architects, the firm hired to do a second opinion, told supervisors on Monday he had “no silver bullet or the magic solution” and had “no clear cut answer.”
Jones told supervisors his firm took a two-fold approach in preparing the assessment, first to review the Moseley Report and note any areas of cost savings for the two options proposed and review the cost models to provide a second opinion.
OWPR also reviewed Halifax County High School from a fresh perspective and developed a potential alternate solution for a building renovation and expansion that may produce cost savings.
“Our approach was to try and re-use as much as we had to provide amenities to last for the next 35 years,” said Jones.
The current structure presents challenges, with multiple building levels creating accessibility issues, a building layout and design that makes building security a challenge and narrow corridors, according to OWPR.
There are few windows for a building the size of the high school, and security will be a challenge, according to Jones, referring to 55 exterior doors in the high school.
Jones told supervisors that, other than the roof, just about every mechanical system has to be replaced.
OWPR’s assessment calls for more exterior windows, but even considering that, the building will still reflect school buildings of the 1970s, which Jones called basically “warehouses for children.”
“The building does not currently reflect the energy and spirit of the school community,” the OWPR report reads.
Public education and its requirements have changed drastically since the current high school was built, board chairman and former Halifax County School Board chairman Dennis Witt pointed out.
“In 1979, ADA wasn’t on the radar, there was no social media, and there was no need for security in our school buildings,” Witt said.
Supervisors sought an independent review of the findings and recommendations in order to be confident the correct long-term decisions are being made regarding Halifax County High School.
OWPR was tasked with evaluating Moseley’s report to the Halifax County School Board that estimated a cost of $88 million for renovating and upgrading the high school and $99 million for building a new one.
In its report, OWPR estimated for them to do the same tasks as outlined by Moseley Architects it would cost $92 million to build a new high school and $73 million to renovate and upgrade Halifax County High School.
The third opinion assessment does not advocate either renovation or replacement but does lay out three potential scenarios, two of which were previously included in the Moseley report, including demolition and replacement options, as well as partial demolition, new addition and renovation options.
OWPR’s alternative approach is to preserve as much of the existing building assets as possible and as part of that approach does not contemplate demolishing any significant portion of the building, other than interior wall demolition for floor plan re-configuration.
OWPR reported the original design of Halifax County High School “presents many obstacles to create a modern 21st century learning environment.
“OWPR is in agreement that generally, when building renovation costs approach 75% of the new building replacement cost, that replacement should be considered,” according to the report.
OWPR also concurred with a second report from Moseley Architects and Timmons Group in September of 2018 that examined each school in the county including the high school and found structural issues in generally non-load bearing walls, with most cracks likely related to expansion issues, not settlement or structural fatigue.
In its report, OWPR recommends as part of an overall skin upgrade to remove areas of spalling/damaged white brick and replace it with a pre-finished aluminum panel system.
The OWPR assessment also agrees in general with those made in the Moseley report regarding site conditions, the football stadium and the exterior of Halifax County High School.
“Although site amenities are aging, OWPR believes much of the site can be restored through renovations and replacement of key components,” the report states.
The Moseley cost for renovation and addition comes in at $88,379,997 and OWPR at $82,558,114, with the OWPR alternative approach contemplating a whole building renovation with the addition of a new auxiliary gym and elevator.
Jones told supervisors that renovation is less expensive but more challenging, considering the transformation of an aging building to conform to a 21st century learning model.
New construction is more expensive, but one downside is the cost of demolishing a 313,000 square foot building, according to Jones.
It will cost approximately $2 million to demolish the existing high school, Jones estimated.
A new school building has a life expectancy of approximately 50 years, while a renovated facility has one of from 30-35 years, according to Jones.
There are few options for using the building housing Halifax County High School for anything but an educational facility, Jones told ED-6 Supervisor Stanley Brandon in response to his question concerning other potential uses.
“School facilities have little core value if not used as educational facilities,” Jones said.
ED-8 Supervisor W. Bryant Claiborne asked if the OWPR assessment uncovered any environmental issues at the high school, particularly with the ground on which the school was built or with mold inside the high school.
Jones responded he was not sure where reports of the high school being built on unstable ground originated, telling Claiborne neither the Moseley Report or B&B Consultants report mentioned it.
“There was no observation of mold that we can see,” Jones told Claiborne, suggesting an environmental consultant could be hired to come in and do testing.
“Some cost reduction would be realized if enrollment continued to decline, and reducing the size classroom wings could be considered as ways to reduce costs, but that was beyond the scope of OWPR’s assessment,” Jones told ED-7 Supervisor Garland Ricketts in reference to a question about potential declining school enrollment.
“I know the new school design is significantly smaller that the current school,” Jones added.
ED-1 Supervisor J.T. Davis, who serves as finance committee chairman, also pointed to the continuing decline in school-age population in Halifax County as a reason for building smaller schools.
“Buildings may be too big for the student population, and we need to find ways to save money,” said Davis. “It’s happening in all rural areas. Why design something larger?”
ED-3 Supervisor Hubert Pannell pointed to the comment made by OWPR when building renovation costs approach 75% of the new building replacement cost, that replacement should be considered.
“What you are really telling me is that we should build new. Tell me if I’m wrong,” Pannell said to Jones.
“We have to look at balancing low costs versus value. I’m not sure renovation gives you the best long-term value as building new,” Jones replied.
Davis cautioned if a referendum authorizing Halifax County to levy a general retail sales tax not to exceed 1% for construction or renovation of schools in Halifax County does not pass, county residents would be hard pressed to come up with money for either renovation or new construction.
“The referendum presents a unique opportunity. Take that off the table, and you’re looking at $100 million-$195 million at the end of the day,” said Davis.
Davis estimated it would take a 28.6 cents increase in the real estate tax to make up the revenue lost if the referendum fails.
“Nothing comprehensive is going to happen if this referendum doesn’t pass,” said Davis, referring to school construction.
Witt suggested a wait and see attitude while the Halifax County School Board mulls over proposals for a new high school.
“In the very near future we need to sit down with the school board and go over everything, the good, the bad and the ugly, and try and move forward in some fashion,” said Witt. “We have food for thought. We need to hear from the school board now.”
Sales tax referendum
In a related matter, a resolution authorizing Halifax County to levy a general retail sales tax to fund capital renovation or construction of schools in the county passed muster unanimously with supervisors at Monday’s meeting.
The referendum authorizes Halifax County to levy a general retail sales tax not to exceed 1% to provide revenue solely for capital projects for construction or renovation of schools in Halifax County.
Revenue raised from the sales tax will be used to finance a 30-year bond, which will be issued to fund school upgrades.
Following approval of the resolution, supervisors must petition the circuit court seeking the issuance of an order to hold a referendum election.
The petition, which asks that the referendum election be set for Nov. 5, further requests the court order the clerk of court to immediately forward a copy of the order calling for the referendum election to the State Board of Elections.
The deadline for inclusion on the Nov. 5 ballot is Aug. 16, according to county administrator Scott Simpson.
Pending approval by a Circuit Court judge the question appearing on the ballot on Nov. 5 reads as follows:
“Should Halifax County be authorized to levy a general retail sales tax at a rate not to exceed one percent (1%), provided the revenue from the sales tax shall be used solely for capital projects for the construction or renovation of schools in Halifax County and that the sales tax shall expire by September 30, 2051?”
Reacting to comments he’d heard in the community, ED-6 supervisor Brandon said wanted to reassure constituents about the potential use of the revenues from the sales tax, if approved.
“It’s actually fake news to say that the penny is to build a new high school at this point. It would be fake news to advertise such…I’ve heard quite a bit of that.”
The public needs to be educated on the importance of the referendum, according to Claiborne.
“These schools have to be repaired, and the money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “That penny is important to save you money, and something has to be done in the next few years. It’s just reality.”