The leaks inside Prince Edward County Elementary. Photo by Amy Trent.

In real estate, they say the key is location, location, location.

Perhaps that’s true in politics, as well.

In 2018, The Roanoke Times published a shocking story about the condition of some schools in Lee County. Photographs documented how on rainy days students and teachers had to set out buckets to catch the rainwater dripping through the roof at Flatwoods Elementary in Jonesville. That school wasn’t even the one deemed in the worst condition by consultants who came in to study the county’s facilities. “That distinction,” the paper reported, “went to the middle schools, including Jonesville Middle down the road, which has its own leaky roofs, broken single-pane windows repaired with duct tape and walls that have separated from the foundation.”

I was editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times then and I thought for sure this expose would force the state to finally come up with money to fix what then-Gov. Ralph Northam had called in his inaugural address “crumbling schools.”

It did not.

And I always wondered why.

How could Virginia – a state that successfully courted Amazon and other high-tech giants – tolerate such pitiful conditions in some of its rural schools?

Oh, there was some movement, to be sure, just minuscule compared to the enormity of the problem, which has been estimated at $25 billion worth of school construction needs. The House of Delegates (then in Democratic hands) routinely strangled measures by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, to kick-start construction with a $4 billion bond issue. Instead, the legislature commissioned a study.

I spent most of Northam’s term flogging him for not moving fast enough to address the problem that he himself had identified; not until his final budget, which he presented in December as he prepared to leave office, did he come up with a significant amount of money for school construction (assuming you consider $500 million significant when weighed against $25 billion worth of needs).

I finally have a theory for why Lee County’s leaky schools (which have since been fixed, with money that could have been used for instruction) didn’t galvanize Virginians to do something about the physical condition of the state’s schools. Lee County was in the wrong place. It’s simply too far away from the centers of power. And it’s in coal country, which, let’s face it, many Virginians in those centers of power just don’t care about very much. Too far away. Too different. Too – well, you can fill in the blanks however you choose.

The proof of my theory comes in the form of Prince Edward County. That county also has a school with a leaky roof, one that’s so bad that three rooms in the school can’t be used at all. (Amy Trent wrote about that earlier this week). Prince Edward County, though, is starting to get the attention that Lee County never did. Why? I suspect the reason is location, location, location. Farmville is just over an hour’s drive from Richmond. Jonesville is about six hours’ drive.

No politician from the state’s population centers is going to drive out to Jonesville. But over the weekend, two drove to Farmville to talk about the state of the school there – state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. Both took part in a panel discussion at the Moton Museum, which I watched through Facebook Live. Perhaps Prince Edward County will become the poster child for the need for state funding for school construction in a way that Lee County never did.

Of course, besides being within an easy drive of Richmond, Prince Edward County has a complicated history when it comes to schools – or maybe it’s not so complicated at all. This is the county where school conditions were so bad that in 1951 teenager Barbara Johns led a walk-out from her segregated school – and triggered a series of legal actions that ultimately led to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. It’s also the county where the local government simply shut down public schools rather than integrate, making the county ground zero for Massive Resistance. That means any discussion of school conditions in Prince Edward County today gets told against the backdrop of that history. That certainly makes for a more compelling story than one out in distant Lee County, even though the problems are essentially the same: Poor counties have a hard time paying to maintain their school buildings and the state government isn’t keen on helping, even though it’s flush with cash and they’re not.

Prince Edward County’s predicament also drew attention during this year’s General Assembly session in a way that Lee County’s never did. Prince Edward determined that to fix its school would cost $30 million (that was not the most expensive option, by the way), which meant the county would need to raise its property tax rate by a whopping 25.5%. As you can imagine, that prospect was not very appealing, so the county sought another avenue: What if it could impose a sales tax, with the money going to schools?

Under Virginia’s quirky system of local government, some localities have that power, some don’t. Prince Edward is one that doesn’t, which meant it had to ask the General Assembly for permission.

The county’s delegate – Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County – introduced a bill to allow such a vote. That bill got killed by Edmunds’ fellow Republicans in a House subcommittee; he said at the time he was “totally blindsided.” Not long afterwards, those same legislators also killed a measure by McClellan that would have allowed every locality in the state to hold such referendums – one of the proposals that came out of that study commission the General Assembly had set up.

The aftermath of that vote has stirred passions in some quarters in Prince Edward County – and led to Saturday’s panel discussion.

It would have been a more interesting discussion if the legislators who voted down the Edmunds and McClellan bills had been there. I have a hard time understanding their reasoning and would have loved to hear them explain it. I understand that those legislators are philosophically against more taxes. I get that. But by voting down the Edmunds and McClellan bills, they’re not holding the line against taxes; they indirectly voted in favor of Prince Edward County raising its property tax by 25.5%. I have a hard time believing they don’t care about schools. I also have a hard time believing they’d tolerate these conditions in their own counties. So how do they think Prince Edward County should pay to fix its leaky school? We simply don’t know. All we know is what the legislators said at the time: “I represent an area that sends us here to hold back on taxes, and they don’t want us to put everything in a referendum back to them,” Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County, said. That’s fine, except schools in her district don’t have leaky roofs (that we know of).

Instead, we got to hear Hudson and McClellan talk about what they’d do.

Hudson bemoaned Virginia’s adherence to the so-called Dillon Rule, the legal argument that counties and cities are created by the state and only have the powers that the state delegates them. “That so often handcuffs localities in Virginia from investing in their own residents,” she said. True, but nobody’s going to rewrite Virginia’s constitution anytime soon.

Hudson suggested that Virginia’s taxes aren’t high enough on some people and some companies – or at least that’s how I interpret what she was saying when she said: “The taxes that would allow us to redistribute resources across communities – the big income taxes, the corporate taxes, that’s the kind of tax reform we really need in Virginia if we want solutions that are on the scale of the problem that our commission on school construction has documented.” That may be – raising those taxes would undoubtedly generate revenue – but voters are rarely in a tax-raising mood and often messages calling for “tax the rich” make non-rich voters wonder if they’re going to be next. In fact, we just had a statewide election in which the winning candidate said Virginians were taxed too much, and that candidate – Glenn Youngkin – won in Prince Edward County. That’s one of many reasons why I’d love to hear Youngkin address school construction – a subject on which he’s been noticeably silent. We know he thinks Virginia should help make sure the Washington Commanders NFL team has a gleaming new state-of-the-art stadium in Northern Virginia, but we don’t know whether he thinks a leaky school building in Prince Edward County is just fine and dandy. If you want to view this in purely partisan terms (which I try not to), it’s his voters in Prince Edward County who have a leaky school. It’s his voters in Prince Edward County who are facing a 25.5% property tax increase because the state government won’t help. Why isn’t Youngkin looking out for them?

Hudson said “we can’t really solve the problem at the scale it demands, that our students deserve, without starting to bring in some of those bigger tools so that’s the kind of work that we need to advocate for over the long haul.” She said Virginia essentially has a flat income tax. As long as “millionaires and minimum-wage earners” pay the same rate, “we’re not going to be able to start creating a meaningful balance in resources in communities.” Can Youngkin think of some alternative that doesn’t involve raising taxes – or tolerating leaky roofs? This would sure be a fine time for some creative thinking.

Hudson also took aim at Virginia’s AAA bond rating. “The most sacred thing you hear anybody talk about in Richmond is the bond rating,” she said. “We talk about it like it’s this sacred cow we have to protect. That again is another relic of history – of the Byrd attitude. It’s all about you can’t go into debt, and if you can’t go into debt, you can’t catch up on big holes. If we really want to get serious about catching up on places that haven’t been allowed to invest at the level that they need to, there’s only so much we can get there with sales taxes. As much as I think the bills to allow localities to raise those little sales taxes can help, there’s only so much you can really do with those.”

I’m sure right now the business community is having heart palpitations just reading that. Endanger the bond rating? Never!

Hudson, an economist by trade, may have figured out the math but I question whether she’s figured out the politics. Then again, she and I probably read the political landscape differently. She’s probably more idealistic: She’d no doubt love a Democratic majority that would rewrite the state’s tax code, institute a more progressive tax structure that would raise rates, and then borrow money, even if that means a lower bond rating. Maybe someday that will happen. But I’m more pragmatic. Right now we have a Republican governor, a Republican House and a Democratic Senate by a margin of just two seats. So no big restructuring of the tax code is going to happen now. It didn’t happen when Democrats had a trifecta, either, I might add. In fact, some Northern Virginia Democrats were among those most skeptical of state funding for school construction. This has been an issue driven, in part, by rural Republicans – and also opposed by other rural Republicans. Edmunds sponsored the bill that would have allowed Prince Edward County to vote on raising the sales tax; other Republicans shot that down. Hudson and McClellan are now voices for school construction funding but other Democrats have not been so supportive; witness what happened to Stanley’s bond proposal last year. This year, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, has been the driving force behind a proposal in the House budget that would create a multiyear funding stream for school construction, something that Senate Democrats have resisted (probably because many of them are from Northern Virginia and they’ve got theirs). So, yeah, it’s complicated. It’s not as simple as saying Democrats believe this and Republicans believe that. Party lines don’t mean as much here as they do on some other issues. Instead, it’s a fascinating and frustrating mix of both ideology and geography. McClellan, for her part, seems to understand how difficult it’s going to be to make any big changes to how Virginia funds schools. “The haves are going to worry they’re going to lose,” she said, “and the have-nots don’t have enough votes.”

And that’s where I come back to the business community. Few things of importance happen in Virginia without the active involvement of the business community. They’re the ones who would fight most strongly against raising the income tax or the corporate tax. They’re also the ones who would benefit most from school construction. So why aren’t those business leaders more concerned about the physical state of Virginia schools?

Right now, the conversation that animates business leaders across Virginia is “the talent pipeline” – the fear that we won’t have enough skilled workers in the fields that we need to power the economy of the future (or, sometimes, the economy of the present). Fixing a leaky school roof won’t, in and of itself, guarantee that talent pipeline but it’s sure hard to picture schools with leaky roofs being conducive to producing the 21st century workforce that the business community says it needs. It’s not just about leaky roofs, either. It’s about schools whose electrical systems are so antiquated that there’s only one outlet per room – which might have been more than sufficient to run an overhead projector in the 1950s but doesn’t begin to address the need for computer science classes now. Yet somehow we’re supposed to produce all the software engineers that Amazon says it needs?

We see business leaders get worked up over the state of roads – as well they should. But why not schools? Somebody should be trying to enlist them in this fight, although talking about raising taxes and tossing the state’s AAA bond rating overboard probably isn’t the way to do that.

Simply from a public relations standpoint, you’d think the business community would be more invested in the condition of schools. We want to present Virginia as a state that’s the best to do business in and, yes, it sure looks impressive that Amazon picked us, but it doesn’t look very good when we have schools in rural areas (and not always rural areas) that are literally falling apart. In some ways, Virginia is a Potemkin village. Northern Virginia sure looks state-of-the-art, but here we have the superintendent in Prince Edward County who says her biggest worry on a snow day is whether the melting snow will make the leaks in the roof any worse. Specifically, Barbara Johnson says she longs for a school where she’s “not having to worry that a ceiling tile is going to fall in.” Why does this not get the same attention, and the same level of outrage, as some naughty book in the library?

I am baffled.But I’m certain of this: Prince Edward County is now bringing attention to the problem of school construction and modernization in a way that Lee County never did. That’s unfair but lots of things in life are unfair. It also lets us frame the question in ways we haven’t before. When people from Prince Edward talk about suing the state – as some have before and at least one did Saturday – we get to ask whether some of the legal arguments about the run-down state of school buildings that made their way into Brown v. Board of Education might be useful here as well. And we get to ask questions like this one: Will we have climate-controlled luxury boxes at a football stadium in Prince William County before we fix a leaky school roof in Prince Edward County?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.