In April 1951, students at Prince Edward County’s segregated Robert Russa Moton High School were so fed up with the sorry conditions at the school that when plucky teenager Barbara Johns organized a walkout, her classmates walked – out of the school and right into history.
Now, 71 years later, a Prince Edward County school is once again in such sorry shape that it’s become the center of statewide attention.
I don’t mean to draw too much of a comparison between segregated schools in the Jim Crow era and an integrated school today, but some comparisons are still apt: In both cases, schools were falling apart and we must ask why.
The “why” in 1951 we know all too well. But why in 2022 does Virginia once again have schools that are in such dire need of repair? More importantly, what are we going to do about it?
The physical condition of schools, particularly in rural Virginia, is an issue that’s been percolating around the edges of Virginia politics since at least the 1990s. (I’ll spare you the history lesson about the politics that led to a surge of state-funded school construction in the 1950s; I’ve given that one before.) The legislature was cajoled into putting up a modest amount of one-time money in the late ’90s as part of the deal to pass Gov. Jim Gilmore’s car tax repeal – the economics of that car tax repeal are still with us today, but that school construction money is long since spent. In the waning days of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration in 2013, he had the Department of Education total up the state’s school construction and modernization needs: They came to a whopping $13 billion. When Gov. Ralph Northam delivered his inaugural address in 2018, he lamented “crumbling schools” but waited until his final budget to propose $500 million to deal with them. By then, that $13 billion estimate had risen to an even more whopping $25 billion.
Now we have a governor who was elected with overwhelming support from the rural areas that can least afford the cost of new schools – and who, near as I can tell, has said nothing about them. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the situation Northam found himself in – flogged for four years for talking about “crumbling schools” and then being slow to act on them. Even without gubernatorial leadership, the outlines of a bipartisan consensus are starting to form that, yes, the state needs to put up some money for school construction (historically a local duty). We have Democrats from the suburbs (Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County), Democrats from urban centers (state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond), Republicans from the suburbs (Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County) and Republicans from rural areas (state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, and a whole slate of others) who are all coming together. They may not always agree on what should be done, or how it should be done, but they do all generally agree that something should be done, and that, at least, is a big step forward.
The state Senate has passed at least five different bills — some sponsored by Democrats, some by Republicans — that address different parts of the problem. For instance, Stanley and McClellan are behind the the bill that would allow school boards to use unspent funds on capital projects. State Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William County, has a bill that would require the state to track the age of all school buildings and help local school systems determine the cost of what it would take to upgrade them. McClellan, Pillon and State Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, were behind a bill that would create a special fund to provide grants for school construction — although that’s just the legislation creating the vehicle, not the actual funding. At this point, as the legislature approaches its mid-point, it’s unclear whether there will be funding. Reid has a budget amendment calling for $6 billion to go toward school construction; the money committees won’t report their budget until next week but it’s hard to see a Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee going along with so much money. There was much talk that a Republican bill on regulating cannabis would include money for school construction — although House Republicans have now said the issue is too complicated and they’ll wait to see what the Senate does. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who sure seems interested in lots of other school issues, has been strangely silent on the school issue that matters most to many of the counties where he ran strongest.
And that brings us to the case of Prince Edward County Elementary School. As schools go, it’s not one of the oldest. The earliest sections date to 1969 (and the older some of us get, the more recent that seems). But as our own bodies sometimes attest, even something that’s a mere 52 years old can wear out.
A summary presented to the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors last November described the school complex this way: “The buildings, though well maintained, continue to demonstrate wear from not only use but also weather. Ice, rain, and wind storms, and aging waterpipes have plagued the buildings for several years. Although roof areas have been patched and repaired, the roofing structures continue to deteriorate causing leaks, damaged tiles, and warped wall and floor tiles throughout the buildings.Without significant renovations and/or construction of a replacement building(s), the elementary school will not meet the public health and safety needs of our children and staff.”
Now, here’s what that really means. During one of our recent storms, seven buckets were set out in the gym to catch the water dripping down. Other barrels and buckets were set out elsewhere in the school.
That’s a colorful detail but also an important one and not just because it speaks to the structural problems at the school.
In 2017, Sara Gregory, then the education reporter at The Roanoke Times, and Erica Yoon, then a photographer at the paper, visited schools in Southwest Virginia, specifically Lee County. They came back with a story and photos from Flatwoods Elementary about how, on rainy days, students had to set out trash cans to catch the rain. “It’s like a waterfall coming down,’ the teacher said.
For years, when I was the editorial page editor at The Roanoke Times, that was the go-to example of “crumbling schools.” That particular problem has since been fixed (to the tune of $700,000 in one of the poorest counties in the state) but it’s still emblematic of the problem – and a lot easier to visualize than cracking walls at Halifax County High School or the gym or cafeteria at Radford High School that don’t have air conditioning. Or the showers at Radford that are so old they were closed years ago, which means visiting sports teams can’t even wash off after a game.
However, I also know there’s a certain implicit bias in some quarters against anything in Southwest Virginia, or Appalachia in general. Lee County is far away – parts of it are closer to eight or even nine other state capitals than our own – so it’s an easy place for some people in Virginia to dismiss. That’s why the Prince Edward County example is so compelling. Here’s a county that’s almost smack in the middle of Virginia (the geographical center of the state is one county over in Buckingham County). Here’s a county that’s just over an hour from the state capitol. Here’s a county that can’t be dismissed as one of those forsaken far-away coal counties with some unique set of problems that the rest of the state can never understand. Here’s a county that’s actually one of Virginia’s bellwether counties in terms of election results – it’s voted for the winning candidate in 13 straight gubernatorial elections, and 15 of the last 16. Perhaps our political establishment ought to pay a little bit of attention to it now?
Last November, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors considered its options about what to do about the elementary school. They settled on what was described as a “comprehensive renovation” that would cost $28,375,000. That was cheaper than a complete replacement; that price tag was pegged north of $39 million.
The county’s preferred way of paying for this was to seek special authority from the General Assembly to raise the sales tax. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, or, in layman’s terms, a “Richmond, may I?” state where localities only have the powers that the state government lets them have. Eight counties (Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania) and one city (Danville) have been granted the power to raise the sales tax, pursuant to a voter referendum, to fund school construction. Prince Edward County wanted to join that list.
Its local delegate – Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County – introduced the bill. And his fellow Republicans on a House Appropriations Committee promptly killed it, by a party-line vote of 5-3. Edmunds told his hometown newspaper, the South Boston News & Record, that he was “totally blindsided” by the vote.
“I have never been as upset in my 13 years being in state office as I was in that moment,” he told the paper.
As Michael Corleone said in “The Godfather” movie, “It’s nothing personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.” (The phrase is actually said to have originated with Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, an accountant for organized crime in the early 1900s.)
The same panel also killed, by the same vote, a similar measure by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, to add Charlottesville to the list. Later it killed another bill from Hudson that would have given every locality in the state that power. The Senate earlier passed a bill that would allow that — it passed with significant support from rural Republicans, too — but that would seem doomed in the House, as well. If the Republicans on that House committee are going to kill a House bill that would give localities that power, why would they approve a Senate bill that does the same thing?
Now, as a taxpayer, I understand the philosophical reluctance of these Republicans to make it easier for localities to raise taxes. I’m also skeptical about using the sales tax as the vehicle. The sales tax is inherently regressive, so if we expect that to be the only way to address school construction, then we’re essentially asking one of the poorer counties in the state to impose a regressive tax.
(The median household income in Prince Edward County is $47,202, well below the state median of $76,456 and just one-third of the state high of $142,299 in Loudoun County.)
On the other hand, at least that sales tax wouldn’t fall solely on the people of Prince Edward County; anyone passing through the county and stopping to buy a drink at the local convenience store would pay it, as well.
Here’s the thing, though: By voting down Prince Edward’s ability to raise the sales tax, the House panel didn’t stand firm against tax increases, as they might think. They merely transferred the tax increase from the sales tax to the property tax. County administrator Doug Stanley says that to raise $30 million, the county would have to raise the real estate rate by 25.5% – so all those legislators who valiantly voted down the prospect of a sales tax increase effectively voted for a 25.5% increase in the real estate tax.
Is there such a philosophical difference between the two forms of taxation?
Nonetheless, the practical result is the same: We’re expecting one of the poorer counties in Virginia to tax itself to pay for schools. Is that really what we want to be doing?
If so, we already know the result: A lot of rural counties won’t upgrade their facilities, no matter what condition they’re in, because they simply can’t. Old Dominion University recently issued an economic report that warned Virginia is “pulling apart.” Here’s one example of that.
Are we to have two Virginias, one with gleaming, state-of-the-art schools and another where we have to put out buckets every time it rains? Because that’s sort of what we have now. Soon we might have a gleaming, state-of-the-art football stadium but still have schools with buckets catching the rainwater. Youngkin says he wants to make Virginia more competitive with other states – good for him. But the condition of some rural schools doesn’t make for a very good sales pitch, now does it?
Virginia right now is sitting on an unprecedented budget surplus. We have a governor politically indebted to rural Virginia. We have the outlines of a bipartisan coalition that could come together. If the General Assembly (and the governor) can’t find a way to do something this year, whatever it is, will it ever happen? Or will Richmond simply tell Prince Edward County that its choice is between raising taxes 25.5% and investing in more buckets?