A year ago, Nielsen Builders and Harrisonburg City Public Schools agreed on a change order to suspend construction of the city's second high school due to the global pandemic.
The change order stated that construction could begin anytime after it was signed on April 30. However, the period of suspension was from April 30, 2020 through Friday. In the change order it stated that if the suspension was not lifted on or before Friday, either party could terminate the comprehensive agreement in accordance with the terms.
But neither HCPS nor Nielsen Builders have any intention of doing that.
Jim Delucas, board chair and chief data officer for Nielsen, said the company is working with the city schools to get the project going again. He said Nielsen is waiting for additional paperwork from the school division on whether to continue the suspension or to authorize the project's restart.
Pieces have been moving constantly the last few months as HCPS has worked to get the project going again despite the proposed city budget not including the necessary funds for the new high school, commonly referred to as HHS2.
According to Superintendent Michael Richards, at the last liaison meeting, City Manager Eric Campbell presented some benchmarks for restarting the conversation about funding the project via a property tax increase. The proposed benchmarks focused on city revenue and employment recovery and had a six month time frame attached to them.
"The two School Board members on the Liaison Committee, Kristen Loflin and Nick Swayne, and I have pointed out that the proposed benchmarks address only one of the three important factors in the decision as to when to restart the project," Richards said.
The main factors for restarting the project are when to raise taxes and by how much, how to keep the contract it's in with Nielsen, and what is the cost of borrowing money now and in the future.
Campbell's proposed benchmarks address only the first of these three factors, Richards said.
The city and HCPS combined are expected to receive about $25 million in American Recovery Plan Act funding, and Richards has proposed that a portion of that be used to restart the construction to maintain the contract with Nielsen and also to lower the impact of any future tax increase that would be needed to complete the project.
Richards has received support from the School Board to use the maximum amount of funds, $9.5 million, the system is slated receive from the American Rescue Plan, $11.8 million total, to restart construction of HHS2, though economic benchmarks for the project have not yet been met. This hinges on if final guidance from the U.S. Department of Education allows that to happen.
Final guidance from the Department of Education was expected as early as Friday. While all guidance up until this point has indicated that the ARPA funding can be used for construction, unlike other stimulus funding during the pandemic, if the U.S. Department of Education argues against this, Richards, and everyone else involved in the construction of the new high school, will be having a very different conversation.