School board unanimously votes to delay building of second high school

At the construction site of the new high school, no Nielsen builders are currently allowed on the site until the change order allows them to resume building.

Maya Waid

At the construction site of the new high school, no Nielsen builders are currently allowed on the site until the change order allows them to resume building.

Apr. 21, Harrisonburg City School Board voted to suspend the construction of the second high school for one year at most.This decision was made with a unanimous vote to halt construction beginning Apr. 30. Representatives from Harrisonburg City Public Schools and city officials collaborated on this decision, including HCPS superintendent Dr. Michael G. Richards

“The city manager and I met on the topic of the city’s finances and we agreed that we need to talk to our respective governing bodies (the City Council and the School Board) about delaying the project due to the adverse economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Richards said. 

After the meeting with the city manager, Richards recommended the delay of construction to the City Council which they unanimously approved at their meeting on Apr. 21. 

“The School Board approved my recommended change order [on Apr. 21.] and I will work with the city and Nielsen Builders to put that change order into effect. That will mean that almost all work on the new school will stop April 30. From that date until one year later, we will be on hold and monitoring economic conditions to see when we can get the project going again,” Richards said. “We may start it up again before the year is over depending on how the economy recovers from the pandemic. “

Also conflicted with supporting the delay of construction is Mayor Deanna Reed. Reed is well aware of the major impacts but also the need to postpone under these circumstances. 

“COVID-19 ultimately caused the delay of the new high school. The city was moving forward. We were excited to finally break ground on our second high school. However because of COVID-19 our economy is fragile,” Reed said. “We have know idea how we will rebound after COVID-19 or how long it will take for our economy to come back. Because of the uncertainty, we had to make a tough decision to delay the construction of the second high school.”

By approving this change order, it allows the city to restart the project whenever the economic circumstances improve sufficiently. In the meantime, the delay of the school will have a major impact on the local economy. 

“The new high school project will be funded by the City of Harrisonburg through the issuance of municipal bonds. Bonds increase property taxes. During an economic crisis, it is a very bad idea to increase the tax burden on individuals, families and businesses,” Richards said.

The impact that the pandemic has had so far has caused changes in the daily lives of all Harrisonburg citizens, causing the local government to make various changes within the community. 

“We have followed the recommendation of the Governor. Which included closing down businesses, we have created a temporary emergency shelter for our homeless. We provide funds to local businesses in need. We waved bus fares so people can receive free transportation. We have created 10-minute parking spots to support takeout from our restaurants,” Reed said. “The pandemic has completely changed all of our lives. We can not enjoy our restaurants, we can’t go to school, or the movies or shop. We can’t enjoy sporting events or gather for special events. It is difficult for all of us as a community.”

Not only will the economy feel the effect of the postponement of the construction, but the students at the current Harrisonburg High School will also continue to deal with massive amounts of overcrowding in school. 

“For several years, HHS has been overcrowded, causing less than ideal circumstances for teaching and learning. This overcrowding will continue for perhaps as much as a year longer than we had all hoped it would. I am looking into potential ways we can ease the overcrowding, but the only sure way to fix the problem is to build a second high school,” Richards said. “[In the short term], we have two more learning cottages being installed this summer, and I am looking for additional ways to spread out students and staff.”

In addition to the students and faculty at the current high school experiencing hard circumstances for an extra year, other parts of the school system have also adjusted in various ways due to the pandemic. 

“The most significant effects are captured within our Continuity of Learning and Programming Plan. Many staff members from across the division worked tirelessly to produce a plan that will keep students engaged in learning and keep them connected to vital programs such as nutrition and mental health services while we are unable to use our buildings,” Richards said.

Richards, who has worked hard to advocate for the building of the new school, is deeply saddened by the delay of the opening of the second high school.

“I’m saddened by it because I know how badly the city needs a second high school. I feel bad for the students and teachers who will have to endure overcrowding longer than we all had hoped. I see it as a challenge to find creative temporary solutions,” Richards said. “The only adequate permanent fix to the overcrowding is a second high school, but with this added delay, my staff and I need to be creative problem solvers, just like we want students to be.”

While it is difficult for the community at this time, Richards is proud of how resilient the teachers and students in the HCPS community have been. 

“I am most proud of the way staff came together to face this unprecedented challenge and of the way students have stayed engaged in learning. Harrisonburg City is truly a special place for education — where educators, families, and the community work together to support all students — and this crisis has only emphasized that more,” Richards said. 

Richards knows that despite the challenges, the community needs to continue to support each other and adhere to safety procedures implemented by the state and federal government at this time. 

“[My advice to the community is to] keep your chins up. We will get through this. Work together, yet physically apart. Take care of yourself and of your family, and also respect the health needs of others in the community by following guidelines such as staying at home unless necessary and wearing a mask when you do have to go out,” Richards said. 

In addition to Richards, Reed also knows that supporting one another during this time of uncertainty is key to maintaining a healthy community. 

“[The pandemic] will continue to be a challenge for everyone. However it is out of our control.  I believe we will come together as a community and make the best decisions and arrangements for our students and teachers,” Reed said. “[In the meantime], follow the recommendations of the Governor.  Practice social distancing, wash your hands, wear a mask and gloves when going out. Stay at home as much as you can. Know that this is only temporary, we will get through this together. Stay strong.”