By Brandon Martin
The Henry County School Board would have the sole discretion of using the high school, middle school, and many of the elementary schools inside of the current city limits after reversion.
Thomas Auker, chairman of the county school board, said he is open to the idea of potentially closing redundant schools.
But he is quick to add that “all of the details haven’t been ironed out yet. We’d need to discuss all of those factors involved before making an actual decision.”
Under terms 5-9 of its filing to the Commission on Local Government, the city agreed to several issues about school consolidation.
The city would transfer ownership of Martinsville High School, Martinsville Middle School, Albert
Harris Elementary School, Clearview Elementary School, and the old gym to the county, while retaining Patrick Henry and Druid Hills elementary schools.
Eric Monday, city attorney and assistant city manager, said both facilities would become redundant upon reversion. The city intends to use the buildings for future redevelopment projects. While the details of those projects are unclear, Henry County recently decided to remodel the former John Redd Elementary School into workforce housing.
For the remainder of schools, the city states in its notice that “the Henry County School Board should be given the right to use those school facilities currently owned by Martinsville on a basis that will fairly recognize the value of Martinsville’s interest in such facilities.”
Depending on the decision of the three-judge panel on payment, the county would take possession of at least four of the city’s six school buildings and the gym. The county also would absorb the costs of operating those facilities.
Costs in the operating budgets for schools include salaries and benefits for employees, facility and maintenance, capital outlay, and educational supply.
The county contributed approximately $18.9 million in local funds for the fiscal year 2021 school budget. The rest of the $68.3 million is covered by the state and federal government, sales tax revenue and other grants.
The city contributed $6.3 million to its overall 2021 school budget. Assuming state and federal contributions don’t change upon reversion, the county would absorb a 33.3 percent increase in local contributions to schools in the division.
Of the facilities the city agreed to transfer, Martinsville High School is the only one with an existing $11.8 million debt.
The city filing states, “the Town of Martinsville will pay off the city’s existing school debt. With respect to any other existing school debt, as new residents of Henry County, citizens in the Town of Martinsville will participate in paying down Henry County’s existing educational debt through county real estate taxes.”
The notice filed by the county concurs that “the city shall be solely responsible for the satisfaction of any and all debt it had prior to reversion, even if an asset securing payment of such debt has been transferred to the county.”
Regardless of which locality pays the debt, the high school facility would have the highest fair market value.
Monica Hatchett, director of communications for the county schools, said “the operating budget for a high school is approximately $7 million dollars.”
The current operating budget for Bassett High School is $6.9 million and the budget for Magna Vista High School is $6.8 million, not including “other categorical expenses such as transportation, technology, and other instructional costs that are separate from the school’s operating budget,” Hatchett said.
Both the city and the county noted in their filings that the enrollment rates are projected to decline in future years.
Martinsville Schools Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley Jr. said in January the division expects 1,905 students to be enrolled in city schools next year. Not including adult education, this would be 147 students per grade level, or 588 students total in the four high school grades.
Hatchett said the total enrollment of Bassett High School is 1,100 students, with 111 staff members assigned to the school. The total enrollment at Magna Vista is 1,074 students, with 140 staff members.
She said the ‘effective capacity,’ at BHS is 1,420 students and MVHS is 1,309 students.
This means Bassett High School could accommodate 320 additional students and Magna Vista could accommodate an additional 235 students. If the two high schools operated at effective capacity, about 555 more students could be housed in county schools.
According to school population data presented in the city filing, fall enrollment in 2021 was initially expected to be 1,678. According to updated information from Talley, the city had 227 more students than expected.
If this figure is applied to the projections for 2022, when reversion is proposed to take effect, the total enrollment in the Martinsville schools would be 1,838 students, or 141 students per grade level, including an estimated 564 students at the high school level.
These 564 students would put the two county high schools over effective capacity by nine students.
The city’s notice also includes information about school attendance zones: “School children residing within the Town of Martinsville should be given priority in attending those schools located within the town.”
Hatchett said school attendance in the county is based on the zone in which a student lives.
“This zoning is determined geographically with the help of Henry County and has been evaluated periodically based on need,” she said.
The county encompasses 384 square miles. If the city moves forward with reversion, only 11.01 square miles would be added to the county.
Hatchett said the current maximum distance that a student would travel by bus is 29.8 miles.
The distance between Martinsville High School and Magna Vista High School is about 9.6-miles. The distance between Martinsville High School and Bassett High School is about 9.2 miles. Both distances are well within the 29.8 mile maximum allowed by the county.
According to the seventh item listed by the city, “the Henry County School Board should be given the right to use those school buses currently owned by Martinsville on a basis that will fairly recognize the value of Martinsville’s interest in those vehicles.”
The notice filed by the county agrees to this condition under its own terms and notices but expands the criteria.
For services transferred to the county, “the city shall provide to the county, at no cost, all personal property, assets and resources currently used by Martinsville in the provision of those services, including without limitation, the vehicles, furniture, fixtures, and equipment.”
Besides the disagreements about payment and how broad reaching the process would be, both localities have at least agreed to transfer city school buses. This means the county would only increase its attendance zone coverage area by 2.87 percent but would also gain the benefit of using the city fleet to do so.
Combined, these factors mean the county has a $6.3 million operating cost incentive to close a high school. For example, closing Martinsville High School would translate into nine students over the effective capacity of county schools.
Post reversion, the county school board would determine whether it is financially viable to continue operating all of its schools with fewer students.
But that, like many things, is yet to be determined.
The county maintains reversion would come at “significant” non-economic costs to residents. “Martinsville’s proposed reversion will result in the loss of civic independence and diminished civic pride, loss of an independent school system and a separate court system, and loss of municipal constitutional officers,” the county stated in its response to the Commission on Local Government.
With litigation ongoing, Monday said a final deal could still be made between the localities which would require the transferred schools to remain operational post-reversion.
The city retains the option to not revert, even after the three-judge panel has ruled, if a satisfactory set of terms and conditions is not reached.
Both localities have retained outside legal counsel for the reversion process.
Monday said the city is spending $124,454 for outside legal counsel during the current fiscal year for reversion costs. He added that is the total cost of the city’s outside legal fees, including a pending lawsuit against the Henry County PSA concerning “their contribution to the cost of replacing the lower Smith River Sewer Interceptor line.”
Troutman Sanders is representing the city in that proceeding that Monday said is “a contributing factor” or issue “relating to reversion.”
The reversion notice by the city references how much the Henry County Public Service Authority should contribute to pay for recent capital improvements and emergency repairs that were made to 6.2 miles of Martinsville’s Smith River sewer interceptor.
The city is asking for $8.6 million in repayment from the PSA and continuation of the 1974 contract.
The county does not consider the lawsuit between the PSA and the city to be relevant to reversion.
As noted by the county in its response to the city’s filing, “The PSA is a separate legal entity. It is not a county department. It owns its own property, employs its own employees, provides water and sewer services to parts of the county, and is responsible for setting the rates it charges for those services. Crucially, unlike the city’s utility departments, the county does not control the use of the PSA’s revenues. The PSA’s revenues are used exclusively to fund PSA projects; they are not used to support the county or the county’s budget.”
The county has spent $107,975.01 on outside legal counsel and forensic accounting so far, according to County Administrator Tim Hall.
“In the current FY 2021 budget, the Board of Supervisors budgeted $70,000 for legal services; however, the board can direct staff to move money from other line items or cost centers to cover any outstanding obligations, which we do,” Hall said. “The budget for legal services in the FY 21-22 budget is yet to be determined.”