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Picture the arcade game Whac-A-Mole.
Just as you strike one critter, another one pops up.
That’s what life is like for those trying to keep Prince Edward County Elementary School dry.
As soon as crews fix one leak, the water finds another way in, damaging ceilings and walls and filling buckets.
Three rooms in the portion of the school built in the 1980s have been rendered unusable because of water damage. It means teachers no longer have extra rooms for labs or advanced programs for the schools’ 800 students.
Despite the buildings’ physical ailments, Prince Edward County Elementary School Principal Teresa Vance said students’ academic needs continue to be met.
“We have a staff dedicated to making sure that our students have high-quality education in spite of what’s going on,” Vance said in April. “The teachers continue with instruction. They continue to work with our kids. They continue to provide that normalcy for our children. They continue to put the focus on learning and instruction and they just really do a good job of making sure that the students aren’t impacted and can learn in a place where there’s pride in where they go to school.”
Josh Blakely is one of the hundreds in Prince Edward County pushing for the state to provide more money to Virginia’s schools. He said there seems to be a growing mass of parents and citizens who want to do something to make a change for schools. Some 300 individuals have signed up to be part of the Prince Edward County Schools Advocates Facebook group.
The whole county should care about schools, he said, noting that good schools attract good companies, which in turn attract more residents and investment.
“It all feeds on itself and I don’t think it’s as easy as put a new roof on the school and all of our problems are gonna go away. I’m not naive, but at the same time, if we can demonstrate that we are investing in the community, in the youngest among us, and by extension, their families and their futures then I think that that turns the community around and it shows growth, it shows that we want people to stay here,” Blakely said.
“I’ve watched the exact same leak over the last five years. …. I’ve walked past it day after day after day. It’s the same leak. It’s been reported. I’ve reported it personally. And nothing seems to be changing. And it’s money is what it comes down to.”
More than half of the public schools in the state are more than 51 years old according to a 2021 report to the state’s Commission on School Construction and Modernization.
Prince Edward County Elementary first went up during the 1969-1970 school year. New structures have been added piecemeal over the decades. At one point the school division moved the fifth-grade program from the elementary to the middle school — where it remains to this day — because there wasn’t enough room.
The school now has seven buildings, most of them outdated and all of them deteriorating.
When Vance became principal five years ago, the roof was already leaking. When Barbara Johnson became superintendent six years ago, it was leaking.
Prince Edward County Supervisor Odessa Pride, a longtime school administrator, said it’s been leaking for at least eight years. She remembers because her granddaughter, now 13 years old, talked about it when she attended the school.
“It has gotten progressively worse over time,” Vance said. “There were leaks prior to even my arrival. They weren’t as significant as some of them are now.”
Although air quality tests have not been conducted and no one has definitively identified mildew or mold in the building, school officials do suspect its presence. Because of COVID the division was able to put air filters in every room in the building.
Since 2017 the school division has spent more than $100,000 replacing various sections of the roof. Officials cannot pinpoint how much has been spent patching the roof. None of the work has fixed the underlying problems. The leaks are not the only problem though.
The school, first built when large open spaces were the trend, is not fully ADA compliant. The lack of traditional classroom walls means the building is noisy. Too noisy. Superintendent Barbara Johnson said the building needs more lighting and areas for group activity.
“I’m not sure anyone understood the extent of how this problem would grow exponentially,” Johnson said of the damage caused by the leaking roofs.
She remembers telling the school board in 2017, her first year on the job, that the elementary school needed a new roof or a renovation.
A new roof would have cost $1 million that year. The division didn’t have the money.
“The leaks, as you fix one section, it would travel to another,” said Johnson. …”Every budget season I say the same thing.”
Johnson isn’t asking anyone to build a new elementary school.
“There are some bones over there that are still useful and in good working order,” Johnson said. “I think a comprehensive renovation would absolutely work.”
The cost for the replacement of the elementary school roof and school renovation is now estimated at more than $45 million according to the county’s 2022-2024 Capital Improvement Plan.
“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,” the CIP said.
“In a rural community like Prince Edward, like most Southside communities, being able to come up with the resources to pay for a significant renovation, again, a $30 million project. It’s pretty daunting. We don’t have a whole lot of new growth in a year,” Prince Edward County Manager Doug Stanley said in March.
The county averages about 100 to 120 new homes annually. Compare that to Warren County, where Stanley previously worked, where the county sees about 250-300 new homes every year.
Over the next five years, in fact, the school division expects to see total student enrollment decline by 30 to 40 students annually.
Stanley points out that the county is “doubly distressed.”
The poverty rate in Prince Edward County is 21.4%.
Virginia’s poverty rate is 11.2%.
The unemployment rate in Prince Edward County in 2021 was 5.7% while the state’s unemployment rate was 5.1%.
During the 2022 General Assembly, the county lobbied hard for school funding. Numerous localities did.
“The facilities situation at Prince Edward Elementary is dire. Leaking roofs interfere with learning and activities. Heat is spotty and standing water prevents adequate play. Structural issues throughout the building are not only disheartening but also dangerous,” the Prince Edward County Schools Advocates group wrote in a letter to the House Finance Subcommittee. “The impact on student learning and teacher retention is deeply harmful. The impact on our community is profound as citizens move away to pursue opportunities for their children.”
Blakely said parents from across the state are now comparing notes.
Parents are saying, “Wait a second. We don’t have money in our district either, what’s going on here,” Blakely said in March. “[This is] a wider conversation about why in Virginia are we underfunding education and why have we underfunded education historically?”
The list of legislators who tried to pass bills that would have funneled more money to public schools is in fact a long one:
Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, R-Washington County.
Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment, Jr., R-James City County.
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County.
Del. Sally L. Hudson, D-Charlottesville.
Del. Shelly A. Simonds D-Newport News.
Sen. Jeremy S. McPike, D-Prince William County.
Del. Dave A. LaRock, R-Loudoun County.
Sen. William M. Stanley, Jr., R-Franklin County.
Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne, D-Richmond.
Del. James E. Edmunds, II R-Halifax County.
Edmunds’ bill would have allowed Prince Edward County to vote on a referendum to add a 1% local sales tax. That tax revenue would have paid for the construction and renovation of the county’s schools. A number of Virginia localities already have such taxing power.
The tax would have been transformative, Stanley said, generating an estimated $3 million to $3.5 million for Prince Edward County in 2022.
Edmunds’ bill was tabled, meaning the debate begins anew next year.
“I am befuddled by the state legislators and their denial of the request to allow us the potential to generate some funding especially when some of them proclaim they strongly support improving education for all,” Russell Dove, a former Prince Edward County School Board member, said. He now chairs an Ad-Hoc committee of school officials, county supervisors, county officials and school board members in search of other potential funding opportunities.
“Prince Edward County has a past history of failing to appropriately address concerns, or inadequate issues, in the public school system. I hope this will not prove to be another setback for our children. We are finally recovering from the systemic harm inflicted by the five-year closing and the current conditions could potentially be detrimental to our future by impacting some of our youngest citizens.”
In Prince Edward County in 1951 Barbara Johns led a student walkout to protest the inequities between the county’s segregated schools. Her lawsuit against the division became part of the Brown V. Board of Education case which would eventually end segregation. Rather than integrate Prince Edward County closed its schools for five years.
“We have got to find the money, the school system has got to find the money because this problem has got to be fixed,” Pride said in March. “We know we have to find the money somehow.”
This year, the county moved the school’s excess revenue from last year, about $2.7 million, into a Capital Improvement Projects account. That money is enough to pay for middle school track renovations, temporary roof repairs at the elementary school, and design work for an elementary school renovation.
Renovations on the middle school track begin this summer.
Stanley hopes to have an architect for the renovations under contract by May.
The county is also considering a meals tax. All the proceeds would be dedicated to school capital improvements. The proposal is going to the board of supervisors this month. There will be a public hearing on the proposal in May.
The local hotel tax, which the county began collecting in 2021 is expected to generate $25,000 to $50,000 annually. (But, as is usual with a hotels tax, much of the money is earmarked for tourism.)
“I want people to understand the urgency. We need to do something,” said Johnson.
Prince Edward County Supervisor Llew Gilliam, Jr. (Buffalo District) and Pride (Hampden District), said the county is moving forward regardless of the lack of funding.
The county has already received five bids from firms willing to take on the design work for the elementary school renovation.
“Nobody wants to raise taxes but it might have to come to that point,” Pride said.
With Noah in fourth grade and Jeremiah in pre-K, Blakely is willing to pay whatever it takes to help modernize the schools.
“For the kids, I’ll pay whatever I need to pay. I don’t know that I can put a dollar amount on it. And I know that that is a hard sell for folks who don’t have children in the system. I can make an argument for why it’s a “common good” for all of us regardless of whether you have children. And I know that it’s hard on our community that’s already, you know, riddled with poverty,” Blakely said. “… I’m really disappointed in our legislature that they shut down Del. Edmunds’ bill because delegate Edmunds bill was a sales tax, not a property tax, which meant that we were going to be getting income from all of the visitors to our area. You know, we’ve got some industry in our town like Green Front that brings people to town.”
“Now we don’t have that sales tax option. I’m afraid we’re gonna bump to a residential tax, you know, change the property tax code. And now it’s entirely borne by the Prince Edward residents who may not be able to sustain it.”