Newport News School Board narrowly OKs controversial plan to move Huntington Middle, which some consider ‘sacred’

·5 min read

The Newport News School Board narrowly approved a plan to relocate Huntington Middle School despite objections from southeast community residents and some board members.

The plan, which passed 4-3, will move the location of Huntington Middle School from 3401 Orcutt Ave. to 28th Street. The city will preserve the facade of the school, but transform the location into a community center.

To some, the school’s grounds at Orcutt Avenue are sacred. Huntington opened in 1936 and for several years, served as the city’s only high school for Black students. The high school later closed and became the only middle school zoned for students living in southeast Newport News.

“We want the school where the school was located,” Huntington alumni Jannie Bazemore said. “Why take away that part of our history? We might lose the building, but we would not lose the land, and the new Huntington would mean just as much to us in its location.”

Bazemore and other members of the Huntington Alumni Association have been speaking at city council and school board meetings for years after hearing one proposal that Huntington Middle School would close and not be rebuilt.

The school board spent more than an hour Tuesday night discussing the plan and considering alternatives. In Virginia, school boards can’t borrow money on their own for construction. All school construction requires the approval of the local governing body.

School Superintendent George Parker told the board he thought the plan offered the earliest chance for reopening. As of now, estimates indicate the doors to the new Huntington Middle School could open in fall 2024. The school was closed in 2018 because the structure was considered unsafe.

Had the board voted down the proposal, Parker said there was no guarantee when the school would reopen. He said it was unlikely it would happen before 2026.

“From my own thoughts and recollections, starting back in 2018 and thinking to now, it’ll be 2024. That’s two generations of middle school students that will have been without a school,” said Douglas C. Brown, chairman of the board. “That’s really — for me and to the promise I made — too long.”

The Newport News City Council initially approved $40 million to fund the school’s construction. At the council’s Nov. 9 work session, City Manager Cindy Rohlf said the amount allocated was increased to $50 million due to rising construction costs.

“From all the estimates we have at this point, we are thinking that will be sufficient to get us the kind of school that council would like to see and provide to the community,” Rohlf said.

Parker, however, said Tuesday night he expects the new building will cost at least $50-60 million.

The school board considered renovating the building but determined it was more cost-effective to build new. The proposed building, which will accommodate about 600 students, will have better acoustics, indoor air quality, lighting and energy management, Parker said.

Bazemore presented the city council with a petition at its Oct. 26 meeting with more than 300 signatures from community residents and alumni asking the city not to move it.

“We have never wanted the school to be moved because we consider that basically what you could call sacred ground,” Bazemore said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“Huntington High School has iconic status in this community,” she said. “We attended high school there during segregation. It was the only place we had to go and we were nourished, nurtured and taught there and many of the students that came out of that school were very successful.”

The school board’s vote was to approve the site layout. The school board will have another vote next fall as to whether it will approve the proposed design of the school on 28th Street.

School board members Terri Best, John Eley and Marvin Harris voted against the move.

Harris asked his fellow school board members to consider a public-private partnership to build the school. The city council would still need to approve the build.

Harris said he thought the board needed to exhaust all possible options before agreeing to the city’s proposed plan.

Parker told the school board he’s arranged a meeting with the city manager to work on a formal agreement — a memorandum of understanding — that will give the school board more say in the project and allow it to monitor construction.

“It has never been my intention for the city to build a middle school for Newport News Public Schools,” Parker said. “I think we need to be active partners in that process and have the control to say if there is something we don’t agree with and have proper protocols in place to make sure that’s managed appropriately.”

If the school board is not satisfied with the agreement, it can choose to walk away from the project and reconsider its Tuesday night vote, Parker said.

The city council has not held a vote on the site plan.

Mayor McKinley Price said at the Nov. 9 work session that the understanding was that the council supported the plan because no one raised any objections when it was presented.

The proposed community center will use the existing Huntington facade and there are plans for a display inside the entrance to honor the history of the original Huntington High School.

Parker said students and their families would have access to the new community center, which will feature an indoor swimming pool, library, gymnasium, community program space, locker rooms and a large meeting room.

The schools will not be responsible for maintaining the community center but would be responsible for maintaining the planned football field between the two buildings.

The city council may choose to take formal action because “it’s city and it’s school-owned land, so it may not hurt to have something at a certain point that acknowledges the switchover,” Rohlf said, but she said the city had decided to move forward with the plan following the Oct. 12 meeting because the council had “a very definitive date from the schools” for when they want Huntington to open.

Jessica Nolte, 757-912-1675,