The process for resuming such a large capital project as HHS2 is uncharted territory for the Harrisonburg School Board, according to Nick Swayne, vice chair.
“The city is our partner on this, so we’ll work with them to figure out how to get things restarted,” Swayne said.
The city suspended capital projects as the number of COVID-19 cases first started to rise in March. The groundbreaking ceremony for the 1,200-student, $105 million HHS2 project was held on Jan. 21, 2020, and it was put on pause for one year at a School Board meeting on April 30.
“It’s time for us to reconsider that,” Swayne said.
However, changes to the project are unlikely, he said.
“I don’t envision a redesign,” Swayne said.
Kristen Loflin, chair of the board, agreed.
“I don’t think any of us are interested in making any large, sweeping change at all,” she said.
Yet, City Councilman George Hirschmann said he is concerned about increasing the financial burden on city residents further during the pandemic by a tax hike that would be required by the project’s full cost.
“I have cautions there,” Hirschmann said Monday.
Other members of City Council could not be reached for comment Monday.
Previously, City Council approved the plan for HHS2 in early December 2019. The bonds to pay for it were slated to be covered by a 13-cent increase in the real estate tax, which would rise from 86 cents per $100 of assessed value to 99 cents per $100 of assessed value.
City Manager Eric Campbell did not include the tax increase when he introduced the budget for fiscal year 2020-21 to City Council as the city and county lost about 10% of jobs between February and April, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Council approved the budget with no tax increases at the May 26 meeting.
Campbell and city staff are working on a new budget to present to council, accounting for tax revenue impacts seen during previous months of the pandemic.
Hirschmann said increases beyond the previously agreed to 13 cents could be problematic as it could lead to higher rents, among other unintended consequences, during a time when people are already struggling. He said the city needs to balance the realities of revenue and needs at HHS2 with a price tag that does not demand too much from taxpayers.
Part of that includes reconsidering previous options for more high school space, such as an annex at Harrisonburg High School or reducing the cost of the project in other ways.
However, he said he wants to avoid any unnecessary delays as well.
“We do need to do something,” he said.
Loflin said large changes to the project could result in further delays.
“I certainly think any kind of additional delays in terms of opening could be very problematic,” she said.
Originally, the school was slated to open in 2022.
“We need the school to be ready in August” 2023, Loflin said.
She said that if the project had been completed earlier, it would have made it easier to bring back high school students for in-person instruction with social distancing and other methods to reduce the chances of viral spread.
“Part of the reason we can’t get our high school kids back in is because [HHS is] so dramatically overcrowded,” Loflin said.
Further delays could also have even more of an economic impact, Loflin and Swayne said.
“All the plans have been approved. All the contractors and all the stuff was ordered and it was ordered for a specific design, so you’re probably going to increase the cost if you redesign it,” Swayne said. “There are so many moving parts that a redesign of any kind is going to be way more expensive.”
Swayne said Nielsen Builders has 500 local workers tasked to the project.
“There’s a huge economic impact on not restarting as well,” Swayne said.
On April 28, City Council passed a motion authorizing the halt of construction and allotting $2.6 million from the city’s fund balance to cover the costs of the construction pause. Costs included $450,000 for reseeding and site maintenance, and $210,000 for site restabilization as required by state laws concerning stormwater management and erosion control, according to city documents.
Swayne also said the old plans for an annex at HHS would only create enough room for 800 more students at the school, which was designed for 1,350 students. He said that with a growing population and the vaccine rollout, HHS could see as many as 2,000 students for the fall semester.
“By the time it’s built, we’re overcapacity,” he said of an annex.
Superintendent Michael Richards and Campbell will be meeting to discuss the project in the wake of reduced revenues caused by the drop in consumer demand and shutdowns in the pandemic.
“I think we’ll probably digest whatever input we get from the city and figure out what our timeline needs to be,” Swayne said.