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Competing Solutions for Harrisonburg High's Overcrowding

In June the Harrisonburg City School Board unanimously endorsed building a second high school for the city, to alleviate the overcrowding at Harrisonburg High School. Even as the city pursues that, a variety of voices are weighing in on what they want to see happen. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

No one disputes that Harrisonburg High School is overcrowded. Its classroom capacity is 1,350 students, but this year more like 1,800 are enrolled, and enrollment projections show continued increases.

Earlier this summer a schools report noted a few possibilities: The original building has an annex option, which would add space for 800 more students at an estimated cost of $48 million. A separate addition option is similar in size and cost. Or — and this is what the school board endorsed in June — a second high school of similar size could provide another 1,300 seats. A cost estimate for a second high school has yet to be nailed down. One number floating around is $94 million.

ANDI ARNDT: We saw this locomotive coming down the tracks when my kids were in kindergarten. 

Andi Arndt is part of a group called ForHHS2, which sees building a full-blown second high school as inevitable.

ARNDT: My frustration as someone who’s lived in the city for 20 years, now, is we keep playing catch-up but we shouldn’t because we have the data. We know that we exceed the enrollment projections. So I would like to see the city build for the class of 2050, not the class of 2020.

But some are concerned about whether the city can handle the financial strain of building a second high school. “Students Over Structures” is a political action committee that has sent out mailers and put up red signs around town decrying a “$100 million school.” It’s funded by Forbes Development LLC, Ashby LLC, J-M Apartments LC, and Living Green LLC.

Living Green gave $7,500 to Students Over Structures, and is the effort of Barry Kelley, CEO of Matchbox Realty. Kelley is also on the land use and transportation advisory committee for the Harrisonburg Planning Commission.

BARRY KELLEY: One of our goals in land use is that we would like to see more home ownership. Obviously, when you increase the cost to anything, you have less of it.

He said the higher property taxes to fund a $100 million school would mean reduced affordability for first-time homebuyers, and less money for other city projects and opportunities. He wants all options explored — like having some city students attend Rockingham County schools, for example.

Developer Bruce Forbes gave $5,000 to “Students Over Structures.” He said the upper spending limit for a new high school should be $60 million.

BRUCE FORBES: You don’t build a Taj Mahal.

Forbes describes himself as “pro-education,” and said that a new building might not be needed because education is going to change in the same way that e-commerce has affected brick-and-mortar stores. And, he said, higher tax rates could increase his annual $200,000 in city property taxes by more than $80,000. He doesn’t think most homeowners in the city realize how higher taxes would impact them.

FORBES: If you go down and you go through ten homes, and you ask them, “What’s your new tax rate going to be?” “What do you mean?” “Oh, I’m willing to sacrifice $30 more income for education.” Have you ever heard that one?

While some groups are calling a second high school inevitable and others are warning against a high price tag, another voice has been suggesting an idea that he thinks could save money and alleviate the overcrowding relatively quickly. George Pace was CEO of Rocco when it sold to Cargill back in 2001, and was on the City Council during the construction of the current high school. He’s been promoting his idea for a while, now, but doesn’t think anyone’s buying it.

GEORGE PACE: It looks to me kind of like the train has left the station. That’s all I can say.

Pace thinks the city could alleviate the overcrowding by switching from its current middle school system model to a junior high system model, making the high school just grades 10-12. The city could use existing buildings for grades 7-9, and accommodate sixth graders in the elementary schools by using mobile classrooms until an additional elementary school could be built for much less than a new high school would cost.

PACE: That buys you time, and if all the projections are right, and four or five years from now we need more space at the single high school, then you build the annex.

Whatever is decided, new-school advocate Andi Arndt said the decision needs to be made with transparency and a variety of voices in the discussion.

ARNDT: We’re not always looking at the same numbers. We need to look at the same enrollment projections, we need to know what our bond capacity is, what the tolerance for a tax increase would be. It’s almost like you’ve got all of these switches that you can adjust to make this really hard decision, and let’s take these different slider switches and see where the sweet spot is, where we can come to consensus on this thing.

Arndt said a new school would be built too late to benefit her own kids. But as a city resident she’s still in favor of taking on the challenge of a new high school.

ARNDT: There are people who are holding up signs, saying, “Raise my taxes. Build a school.” Our schools matter to all of us, because it’s our property values and our values as a community.

City Council member Richard Baugh is pretty sure whatever the high school overcrowding solution will be, it’s going to be expensive. And if people are concerned about where that money is going to come from?

BAUGH: Okay good, because I’m worried about the cost too. So we’re fine.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.