A "vote yes" sign outside Stony Mill Elementary School. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Elizabeth Piercy’s second grade students have to dress in layers when they come to school. Stony Mill Elementary School in Pittsylvania County doesn’t have central air conditioning, meaning classroom temperatures can be wildly inconsistent. 

“A group sitting near the air conditioner might be colder, and everybody else might be just fine, but that group is freezing,” Piercy said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it because we can’t move the air conditioner, and we have to have it on.”

Piercy said she has to raise her voice to be heard over the rumbling of the window unit. And on windy days, students can watch the blinds move because so much air comes in through the windows, she said. 

“You can’t caulk the same windows but so many times over the years,” she said. 

One of the AC window unit in Elizabeth Piercy’s 2nd grade classroom. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Stony Mill was built in 1964, making it one of the oldest schools in Pittsylvania County. There aren’t enough classrooms for its students, so Stony Mill has five mobile units outside the main building, where some classes are taught, said principal Kim Haymore. 

This is a security concern, as students who need to use the restroom have to walk unsupervised back into the main school building, she said. 

This isn’t the only school in the county with these problems. And these are all issues that could be remedied by a 1% sales tax increase, a referendum that will appear on the ballot this year for the second time in Pittsylvania County. 

Last year, just 13 votes out of over 20,000 kept a similar referendum from being approved in the county, though there is no organized opposition. 

A similar referendum also appeared on the ballot in Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, and Patrick counties and the City of Danville.

“Every locality except Pittsylvania County approved it,” said Martha Walker, chair of the campaign for this referendum, called Vote Yes 4 PCS. 

Walker said she thinks this was because many voters didn’t fully understand the referendum. 

Last year, the county heard about this referendum in mid-August, giving them about seven weeks to put together a campaign and educate voters before the election.

“We had no funding, we were not registered with the Department of Elections, we had no organizational structure,” Walker said.

The campaign team was also hampered by COVID, she said, and was unable to meet with groups in person. One area where they had success was having volunteers at the polls to explain the referendum to voters. 

“Precincts where we actually were able to get volunteers, those polls actually approved it, because we were able to explain it to people,” Walker said. “But it was too late.”

The campaign team worked with state legislators like Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, to find out that the referendum could in fact be placed on the ballot again this year, giving the campaign a second chance. 

In January, the county board of supervisors unanimously approved a request that the referendum appear on the ballot again. And in February, a judge signed the order to confirm its place on the ballot. 

Walker said she hopes that this year, more people will be familiar with the referendum and understand it. 

A 1% increase in sales tax in Pittsylvania County would raise about $3.8 million a year. This is an increase of one penny on the dollar, which is why it’s sometimes called a “one-cent sales tax” as well.

Over 19 years, the amount of time specified in the referendum, this would generate over $70 million, with $50 million going toward renovation projects and the rest allocated toward interest payments. 

Sales tax does not apply to groceries and medicines, and this money can only be used for public school renovation and construction projects. 

And finding this amount of money elsewhere in the budget for this purpose would be extremely difficult, said Mark Jones, Pittsylvania County Schools superintendent. 

“If [the referendum] doesn’t go through, many of these renovations are still going to have to be done,” Jones said. 

The alternative to the 1% sales tax is a real estate tax, he said, which is how money for schools has been traditionally raised in the past. A real estate tax would be a much bigger financial burden for county residents, he said. 

To raise the same amount of money as a one-cent sales tax, the real estate tax would have to increase almost eight cents. 

“That would equate to $120 on a $150,000 home,” Jones said. 

Plus, a real estate tax solely impacts residents of the county, whereas a sales tax is applied to anyone who is traveling through the county and buying things there. 

Like the visitors for the Blue Ridge Rock Fest, Jones said. All those people coming in from other places would have to pay the 1% sales tax as well. 

These factors should make a 1% sales tax the most desirable option for county residents, he said. 

Walker said this year, the campaign has had much more manpower and time to get the word out. 

The campaign team has met with civic groups, fire departments, the Pittsylvania Farm Bureau and the womens’ group for the Farm Bureau, the NAACP, and gotten endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, she said. 

They’ve also put out an informational postcard that has been mailed to every county resident and created a website and Facebook page. 

Early voting began Sept. 23. Oct. 17 is the deadline to register to vote and Oct. 28 is the deadline to have a ballot mailed to you. 

“We’d say that about 95% of those we talked to understand it and are voting yes,” Walker said. “But, but we still have a pocket of people who say things like, wait, what about the lottery funds? I thought they were supposed to take care of schools.”

Public schools in Virginia do receive money from the Virginia Lottery, but it’s not nearly enough to cover the renovation costs for the school, Jones said. Plus, the lottery funds are targeted to go toward specific uses. 

Most of the lottery funding must go toward recurring expenses, and are included in the operations budget, the campaign website says.

Only about 30% of the lottery funds can go toward one-time, or non-recurring, capital projects like replacing equipment or infrastructure. 

During the 2021-2022 school year, Pittsylvania County used this 30%, which amounted to $741,308, to replace wooden light poles and outdated lighting on the high school athletic fields, according to the campaign website. 

“The second question we’re getting is, hey, wait a minute, shouldn’t the school system live within their own budget and figure out how to fund this without [a tax]?” Walker said. “Or shouldn’t the county cut their budget by so much and get those funds?”

The answer to that is that the school’s budget is very small to begin with, she said. 

“Pittsylvania County has never been one of the top 100 school systems in per-pupil funding,” she said, adding that the county does, however, rank closer to the top in academic performance. 

Out of 130 school systems, Pittsylvania County ranks 125th in per-pupil funding, according to minutes from a January 2022 school board meeting. 

In the past few years, the local government has done a lot to improve the funding status of the county schools, Walker said, but the budget is still too small to fund all of the renovation projects that are necessary. 

Funding generated from a sales tax increase would help address a long list of needs at schools like Stony Mill. This would impact the experience of both students and teachers, Haymore said. 

“For those that are teaching out in mobile units, it will provide security and safety for them,” Haymore said. “For teachers that are working in classrooms that have an air conditioning unit, they won’t have to worry about the noise.”

And replaced windows will also help with climate control of the classrooms and make the school more energy efficient, she said. 

With this funding, the county also plans to construct vestibules or a double-entry at the main entrance of the schools, Jones said. 

“First, first and foremost is safety,” he said. “A safety vestibule will allow visitors to get out of the rain, out of the cold to get inside, but then they still have another set of locked double doors to get through to get to the building.”

Walker said she is “cautiously optimistic” about this year’s election. She said her biggest concern is that there are still pockets of people who don’t understand the impact that a 1% increase in sales tax will have on schools, the community, and the whole county. 

“I realize that we’re not going to get 100% of the vote,” she said. “People just don’t want a tax in general. Everyone wants to keep every dollar they make, there’s no doubt. But we also live in a society where we share and we build each other up.”

It’s important to build the schools, students, and community up, Walker said. Ultimately, this benefits students, the future of the country, she said. 

“The child is the person who is benefiting, and when the child benefits from an improved learning environment, that improves everything in the future,” she said.

One of the windows in Elizabeth Piercy’s 2nd grade classroom has a hole through the window from when debris that a lawnmower kicked up flew through the window years ago. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Grace Mamon

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org.