“We know the community has been waiting for this news. We’ve been hanging in the balance on what we were going to do [to complete the HCHS project budget], and we are just so grateful for this news,” Huskin said.
County and school officials received confirmation Thursday that Halifax’s application for state grant dollars had been approved during a morning meeting of the Virginia Board of Education. The board oversees the Virginia Public School Construction Grant program, created by the General Assembly last year with a cash infusion of $450 million.
The program provides funding for localities that are seeking to modernize their school facilities through renovations, expansions and new construction. Halifax’s request was one of 43 applications that won out in the grant program’s first round of awards. In all, 65 school divisions submitted 119 applications for funding.
The $20 million award was the maximum amount allowed under program rules.
“I was screaming like crazy,” said Huskin, describing her reaction to the Board of Education decision. “The excitement is amazing throughout the school division right now.”
Huskin and members of the Halifax County Public Schools Central Office staff witnessed Thursday’s board meeting via a live video feed, after Huskin had gotten a heads-up the day before that Halifax was tentatively approved to receive $20 million.
The grant award is likely the final major piece of funding needed to make the school project a reality. The county budgeted $109 million for a replacement HCHS, but that sum is short of the full amount needed to build the facility, which preliminary estimates last year suggested would cost $125.5 million.
While school officials await a final price for the new school — general contractor Howard Shockey & Sons is expected to present its Guaranteed Maximum Price (GNP) next month to the School Board — Huskin expressed confidence that sufficient funding is now in place to pay for the new HCHS facility.
“These [state] funds will allow the project to continue moving forward,” Huskin said. “Based on the estimates received in the fall, there was a gap in the funds secured from the bond sale” — debt that will be serviced with proceeds from the county’s 1-cent sales tax — “and the school division’s available funds totaling $109 million dollars. This additional $20 million will allow the school to be completed with no additional burden to our community.”
The state grant award validated a bet that the School Board placed last year after the Board of Supervisors rejected trustees’ request to backstop any gap in funding for the high school project. At the time, Grimm & Parker Architects, the board’s design firm, estimated that the new building would cost $125.5 million, about $16 million more than the project budget established by the Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors refused to promise to provide the balance of funding if construction ran over that $109 million cost number, seeming to imperil the school’s future. But Huskins and school trustees soldiered on, directing the construction partners — Grimm & Parker Architects, general contractor Howard Shockey & Sons, and project management firm SKANSKA USA — to continue their work finalizing plans for the new HCHS building in the expectation that the money would be there in the end.
On Thursday, the Virginia Board of Education came through with a decision that upheld that scenario.
The next major step in the process will come when Shockey & Sons presents its GMP for the school project. Under its contract with the School Board, Shockey & Sons will be liable for any cost overruns if the project exceeds the guaranteed maximum price. If the project ends up costing less than the GMP, the surplus funding could be used to pay for a new football stadium and other outdoor athletic facilities that are not part of the existing project.
The vote by the Virginia Board of Education to give Halifax County $20 million came earlier than expected. Initially, school officials suggested that they would know the outcome of HCPS’s grant application by June 15. But the state education board pushed up a vote to the special meeting Thursday.
The Virginia Department of Education conducted an open application process from Feb. 24 through March 31 for school divisions to apply for grants from the school construction assistance program. Halifax’s application was bolstered by three key factors: the county’s clear need for economic help, the local commitment to school modernization as evidenced by the 2019 passage of the county’s 1-cent sales tax referendum, and the work that had already gone into preparing the shovel-ready HCHS project.
“I’m elated and ecstatic. We were one of the largest awards,” Huskin said of Thursday’s announcement. “The whole community has been waiting for this. To finally know that Halifax has been heard and we’ve been seen by the state, that is huge.”