Lynchburg is about to embark on what school superintendent Crystal Edwards admits will be a “tough conversation” — whether to close schools and, if so, which ones.
A consultant’s report last year found that the city had too many school buildings for a declining school enrollment.
On Wednesday, the school system released four possible scenarios, two of which involve closing one school, a third that involves closing two schools, and a fourth that involves “closing or converting” a school. (You can view those four scenarios here.)
Starting Monday, there will be four open houses across the Hill City to solicit public feedback. And then on Aug. 8, there will be a joint meeting between city council and the school board to discuss these scenarios. At this week’s school board meeting, school officials cautioned that this is the beginning of a process, not the end of one — and that all these scenarios can be modified based on public input. That’s why the preferred term is “scenario” rather than “proposal.” (You can watch Tuesday’s school board meeting here.)
For all of those claims of flexibility, though, one thing isn’t open for debate: the demography that’s driving this painful discussion.
Lynchburg’s declining enrollment is not the result of some “failure” as a city. Instead, it’s a direct result of a national phenomenon: a falling birth rate that has produced fewer children. Lynchburg has some unusual demographics (more on those shortly), but the basic trendlines aren’t unusual at all. Indeed, we see them playing out in lots of places. Earlier this year, I wrote about how Highland County had canceled its annual Maple Queen pageant because it didn’t have enough contestants. There are certainly cultural changes that may have reduced interest in pageants, but the bottom line is that the number of girls in the eligible age group has fallen because of a “baby bust” in the county. Covington High School has closed — its school system merged with Alleghany County — because of declining enrollment.
I don’t envy Lynchburg as it works through these issues. Nobody wants to see a school close. On the other hand, some aging schools are in dire need of renovation, and ultimately everything costs money. The odds are good that these discussions will become heated; people take their neighborhood school personally, and that’s surely better than people not caring at all. For all the emotion that’s likely to pour forth here, let’s offer up some demographic facts that might help guide a calmer conversation.
Open houses on Lynchburg’s master plan for schools
- Monday, July 17: Paul Munro Elementary, 4641 Locksview Road
- Tuesday July 18: Sandusky Elementary, 5828 Apache Lane
- Wednesday, July 19: Heritage Elementary, 501 Leesville Road
- Monday, July 24: Dearington Elementary, 201 Smyth Street
Each event is 6-8 p.m.
See the master plan.
First of all, Lynchburg’s population is growing. After losing population for two decades in a row — the 1980s and the 1990s — the city has now posted population gains for two decades in a row. In 2000, Lynchburg fell to 65,269. The latest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University Virginia put Lynchburg’s population at 80,127. To the extent that population growth represents success — I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan’s observation that people “vote with their feet” — Lynchburg is clearly succeeding.
Those same figures, and others, do show more people moving out of the city than moving in. That might initially look like a demographic failure. Communities would generally prefer to see more people moving in than moving out, right? This would seem an example of Reagan’s adage, just in reverse. However, we need to keep in mind how cities work. Let’s picture two young adults who move into a city together. Nature takes its course and those young adults turn into two somewhat older adults, with some children. They’re also doing better financially. They want a house instead of an apartment and so they move — and that move might take them out of the city and into a neighboring locality. Maybe concerns about where their kids will go to school factor into their decision. The essential demographic point, though, is this: Where two people moved into the city, four moved out. Let’s say another young couple, without children, move in behind them. Statistically, that goes into the record books as a net loss of two people but that doesn’t fully capture the story lines going on behind the scenes. To some extent, cities are typically losing population like this — and as long as they get replenished, they’re losing population numerically but it’s not as if the city is really being permanently emptied out. Indeed, as we see from the census data earlier, over time Lynchburg’s population has been growing.
I’ve pointed out before — to the chagrin of some in the Lynchburg business community — that the Lynchburg metro (as distinct from simply the city) has seen the slowest gross domestic product growth of any metro in the state, and that’s true. However, both population and GDP remain in the plus column. That GDP growth could be stronger, but I think it’s important to emphasize here that declining school enrollment should not be equated with some economic failure in the city.
Indeed, Lynchburg has demographically succeeded in some important ways.
From 1980 to 2021, all but one Virginia locality grew older, as measured by median age. That one exception: Lynchburg. Put another way, Lynchburg is the only locality in the state that’s growing younger. In 1980, its median age was 30.9. By 2021, it was 28.6. (For contrast purposes, Roanoke’s median age went from 32.9 to 38.5. In Lynchburg’s neighboring localities, Campbell County’s median age went from 30.1 to 43.2, Amherst County’s median age went from 30.5 to 44.7, while Bedford County’s median age soared from 31.8 to 47.)
Now, at the risk of offending readers who might be … well, umm, my age, I’ll just gently point out that a younger median age is generally better than an older one. A younger workforce looks better to potential employers — in a future column, I’ll look at the harsh numbers of how many workers are retiring without enough people to replace them. Younger adults also spend money on things older adults generally don’t. As much as I love to go to Lynchburg and spend my money at restaurants along the Bluff Walk, that nightlife scene there doesn’t depend that much on people my age. (I’m particularly fond of the pimento cheese dip at Bootleggers, by the way.)
In 1980, Lynchburg’s median age was not particularly unusual — in fact, it was right smack on the national median age. Now it is. While the rest of the state and country have grown older (the national median age in 2021 was 38.8), Lynchburg has grown younger — and is now the fifth-youngest city in the state. The only places younger: Lexington (22.2), Radford (24.4), Harrisonburg (25.7) and Williamsburg (28.5). You’ll notice that all those are college towns, which pull down their median ages. Lynchburg is, too, now.
In fact, it’s a multiple college town.
It seems reasonable to conclude that the growth of Liberty University — which was still Liberty Baptist College in 1980 — has helped pull down the city’s median age.
Overall, that’s probably a good thing for the reasons I laid out — potential employers should like those younger demographics. However, those younger demographics also exacerbate an already falling birth rate. Not only are people having fewer children, they’re having them later in life. The median age at which women in the United States have their first child is now up to 30, according to the Census Bureau.
As we just saw, Lynchburg’s median age is lower than that. Most localities looking to grow their birth numbers want younger adults; Lynchburg, ironically, could use somewhat older adults. Becoming a college town has brought Lynchburg many benefits but one side effect is that college students tend not to have children.
Finally, let’s look at the actual birth numbers. It’s one thing to say that in 1958, the fertility rate in the U.S. was 3.58 births per woman and that now it’s 1.78. (Statistically, 2.1 is considered the official “replacement rate” to keep the population flat, so if we were depending on births alone, the nation’s population would be shrinking. Immigration has helped avoid that unhappy shrinkage.)
Here’s how those figures play out in Lynchburg:
In 1950, Lynchburg saw 2,362 births.
By 1990, that figure was down to 1,050.
In 2010, the city saw 985 births.
In 2020, just 960.
This is why Lynchburg has declining enrollment — and why these enrollment declines are projected to continue, just at a slower rate.
Lynchburg has become more populous, but also younger, at a time when young adults are having fewer children. If Lynchburg wants to keep all its schools open, then it will need to be willing to pay for that — or do something to either encourage more families with children to move into the city, or encourage somewhat older young adults who might be more likely to have children to establish residency. Some might point out the difficulty of that: How easy will it be to attract more families with children if the city is closing a school or two? On the other hand, how easy will it be to attract them if some money isn’t freed up to renovate some of them?
None of this will make the coming decisions any easier, but this is the inexorable math behind them.