Lynchburg City Schools has come to a crossroads.
Over the past 10 years, the district has seen enrollment decline and school buildings age. Now, after years of study and months of discussion and debate, the school board could soon vote on a recommendation to close two elementary schools.
The road to this vote has not been an easy one; parent concerns, financial constraints and equity matters have all come into play.
Nor is Lynchburg alone in facing a new schools reality. The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found in 2022 that enrollment has declined across Virginia, with an expected drop of 45,000 students from 2022 to 2030. David Alexander, a professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program at Virginia Tech, said most of this declining enrollment in Virginia is in the rural and southwest parts of the state.
In Lynchburg, plans to evaluate the school buildings and the future of the school system began in 2018 after the city and school administration realized that they needed to refocus on the future of Lynchburg’s education. A task force was created in 2019 but the team was soon deterred and wasn’t able to meet because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Breaking down the Lynchburg school scenarios
A consultant developed four scenarios for Lynchburg City Schools, based on the following goals:
- to redraw the school boundaries to create closer-to-home districts
- to renovate and expand each elementary school to hold more students
- to create accessible preschool options
- to expand alternative education opportunities
- to remove the use of portable classrooms
Scenarios 1, 2 and 3 each include the use of rezoning close to home. These three scenarios suggest the renovation of Paul Munro, Linkhorne, R.S. Payne and Perrymont elementary schools.
Scenario 1 would close Fort Hill community school because of its isolated location, and Heritage Elementary would become an alternative education center for middle- and high school students because of its proximity to Heritage High. With full renovations, this scenario would cost an estimated $271.7 million. With safety and maintenance improvements only, the cost would be $172.5 million.
Scenario 2 would close Dearington Elementary or repurpose it into a preschool to serve the surrounding neighborhood, which lacks affordable preschool options. This scenario would cost an estimated $215.1 million with full renovations; just safety and maintenance would be $114.8 million.
Scenario 3 would close or repurpose T.C. Miller and Sandusky elementaries. This scenario would cost an estimated $234.8 million for full renovations, or $169.5 million for safety measures and maintenance.
Scenario 4 would close Sandusky and Paul Munro, and would either close Dearington or repurpose it into a preschool. This scenario would cost an estimated $222.1 million for full renovations or $164.7 million for safety measures and maintenance.
School board committee recommendation: The recommendation made this week by the school board’s finance and facilities committee, to close Dearington and T.C. Miller, was not one of the scenarios suggested by the consultant’s report.
Finally, in August 2021, Lynchburg City Schools hired Dominion Seven Architects to evaluate the city’s school buildings and student population trends and recommend courses of action for each school building.
The resulting study, which was published in April 2022, found that a majority of the city’s schools need complete renovations to function as productive learning sites. Six of the city’s 11 elementary schools were mentioned for possible closure.
At a meeting Tuesday, the school board’s finance and facilities committee recommended closing Dearington and T.C. Miller elementary schools, which are both innovation schools that bring in students from across the district, and which both are in parts of the city that have high rates of child poverty.
Martin Day, the chair of the finance and facilities committee, said Thursday that the decision came down to the financials.
“They are the two most expensive schools to operate per student. That was really the only reason,” he said.
The recommendation made by the committee was not a unanimous one, Day said.
“There was some disagreement at the committee level,” he said. “It was approved at the committee level on a 2-to-1 vote.”
The full board could vote on the recommendation as early as Tuesday.
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Lynchburg has more elementary schools for its student population compared to some similar-sized cities in Virginia. Danville and Harrisonburg, for instance, have approximately 2,500 and 2,900 students respectively but only have six elementary schools each, for an average of 500 students for each school.
Lynchburg’s 11 elementary schools serve around 3,800 students, or an average of 350 students per school. Dominion expects the division’s enrollment to decrease by 1.9% within the next 10 years.
Both the schools themselves, and the attendance zones created around them, are showing their age.
Dominion found that both the attendance zones, which were created in the post-segregation 1970s, and the innovation centers used to improve the socioeconomic profile of schools, are in need of an update as the population of Lynchburg has become concentrated in some zones, leaving the other zones with less students.
The schools found to need the most help, renovations-wise, were those in Ward II, the part of Lynchburg with the highest minority population, according to the city’s demographic report. This report also found the percentage of households below the poverty level in Ward II to be 30%.
Crystal Edwards, superintendent of Lynchburg City Schools, said that poverty levels and location were factored into these facility reports.
“That was one of the first challenges we faced,” Edwards said. “When we looked at the schools just based on their physical needs, they were all in Ward II. But even as we rezone, we have to rebalance. We don’t have to have a high-poverty school and a low-poverty school.”
And it reported that the age of the facilities is a disservice to students. The elementary schools recommended for closure were built in the 1930s and 1960s.
“If you look at the research, school buildings have a life of about 50 years,” Alexander said. “They probably don’t have the electrical infrastructure to run all the computers. In the ’30s we weren’t thinking that every kid needed a computer.”
The most recent school in the system was built in 1966. The average age of a Lynchburg elementary school building is 78 years.
Reid Wodicka, Lynchburg’s deputy superintendent, said this facility plan has been on the minds of school leaders for a long time.
“You know, the truth is we have fewer elementary kids now,” Wodicka said. “Right now we have about 80% of our overall buildings used. The best practice is to be about 85 to 90%, so we can be efficient but not overcrowded.”
Armed with the results of Dominion’s study, and facing decisions about how, and whether, to close and renovate schools, school leaders sought opinions from the community. The school system hired MGT of America, a consulting firm, to combine information from Dominion Seven’s reports with input from school officials, community members and educational institutions to create a five-year plan for the schools.
Among MGT’s findings: Over the past 10 years, Lynchburg’s population growth has been lower than the increase in population of Virginia as a whole: 4% compared to 6%, respectively. The city’s projected total K-12 enrollment by 2031 is 7,489, down 5.2% from the current year.
Each of the city’s elementary schools has seen a decrease in enrollment since 2013. The functional capacity of the elementary schools is just below 5,000, but the 2023-24 enrollment is around 3,800.
Lance Richards, the project manager at MGT and one of the consultants helping the city create a plan of action, said Lynchburg is taking the right steps to keep up with changes in the community and schools.
“[LCS] has got some old facilities that need a little bit of help,” Richards said. “The question is, there’s a finite number of dollars. And so looking at your schools and looking at your communities, we just brought options forward that school leadership and city leadership looked at and said were good ideas.”
The primary goal of these changes is to redraw school zones to create districts that keep students closer to home, renovate school buildings to hold more students, convert buildings to become preschool options or alternative education options, and remove the use of portable classrooms.
Three of the four scenarios that came out of MGT’s work suggested closing schools, three suggested rezoning close-to-home and two suggested the expansion of school buildings to hold more students.
“So city leadership and school leadership have to decide how can we better meet the needs of those students and those citizens as well,” Richards said. “And that’s why some of the options you saw were closing schools.”
A preliminary analysis showed that survey respondents favored rezoning close to home and liked the plans that called for fewer schools closing. Converting an elementary school building into an alternative education hub was also a popular choice.
The recommendation made this week by the facilities and finance committee didn’t hew to any of the scenarios laid out in the consultant’s report.
“The board could choose to follow one of the four scenarios recommended by the consultant firm MGT,” Day said. “Or it’s even conceivable, although I don’t think it’s likely, somebody could come up with yet another proposal.”
At a joint work session of the city council and the school board in early August, there was some discussion about closing both Dearington and T.C. Miller; cited as factors were the decrease in attendance and the fact that both schools no longer serve as neighborhood schools, since many of their students come from other parts of the city.
The committee’s recommendation to the full board also includes pursuing close-to-home zoning and unitary status, which ensures racial balance between students and teachers at each school, Day said; the board would expect to receive funding from the city council for that. The capacity of R.M. Bass Elementary also would be expanded to accommodate the resulting student load; the school system has requested $15 million for that work, he said.
Safety and maintenance repairs and renovations would proceed at the remaining schools, he said.
Even if the full board approves the suggested plan, that won’t be the end of the work.
Planning for additional pre-K and career and technical education facilities doesn’t have to be done as quickly, Day said. The school board will develop a new five-year plan this year, and those goals can, and should, be part of that, he said.
Another school closure may be appropriate at some point, he said. The city’s plans for the vacated Dearington and T.C. Miller properties could influence the school board’s future decisions, he added.
If the school board decides to go through with this recommendation, it will still need to be approved by the city council, Day said. There isn’t a timeline for that decision either, he said.
“I don’t have a prediction about what it will do. It’s just we’ll just have to see where the chips fall,” Day said.
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School officials have said that the goal of these changes is to create a more equitable experience for Lynchburg students.
“I have this conversation with parents a lot,” Edwards said. “And I’ll say, ‘What makes your child’s experience special?’ It’s usually the teacher, the environment, the culture, the parent involvement. And I’ll say if I could pick up your school, your teachers … and put them in a different building would you still have that experience? Their answer is often ‘yes.’”
Despite this, Carly Sheaffer, a parent and president of the parent-teacher organization at T.C. Miller, worries that the plan doesn’t focus on the importance of what is going on inside the schools.
“If a school is doing a really amazing job, then let’s invest in that school and make it better, not close it down,” Sheaffer said.
Erica Powers, another parent, is concerned that these scenarios will not make Lynchburg schools nondiscriminatory. In particular, the scenario that would close three schools and expand the others to fit a larger student body worried her.
“I’m less concerned with having money at my school and more concerned with making sure that everything is redrawn well,” Powers said. “Because I don’t care how successful one school is, I’m looking to make them all successful.”
According to 2021 census data, Dearington and T.C. Miller are in areas of the city with child poverty rates over 30%, as is Fort Hill, another school that had been identified for potential closure. Of the other schools mentioned for closing in the four scenarios, two — Heritage and Sandusky — are in neighborhoods with a child poverty rate of over 20%. The final school, Paul Munro, is in an area where the child poverty rate is just above 1%.
“They’re consolidating all the higher economic areas and it would almost be like taking the powerhouse of Paul Munro and the powerhouse of Bedford Hills and just making all of the money in [Lynchburg] centered right there,” Powers said.
Dominion found that most of the architectural help was needed downtown, where there are high concentrations of poverty, Edwards said. However, not all the schools that need help are in areas with a balance of high and low poverty.
There is also a worry that the expansion of schools after closing others will negatively impact students.
“It feels like a small family. That’s because of the size of the school.” Sheaffer said. “If [the school has] 600 kids, it is not going to be able to create the same atmosphere and learning environment and community that we have now.”
But Richards, the MGT project manager, said the consolidation of schools will benefit the students and schools.
“In these situations, when you have 500 kids in one school, then you can have more resources,” he said. “You have full-time music, full-time art, full-time special education, your resources are then allocated more efficiently in order to better meet the needs of those students, instead of having to bide staff between multiple campuses.”
The closing of schools won’t put teachers out of work, Edwards said. Combining schools will help Lynchburg fill the schools after the teacher shortage.
“That takes the pressure off the existing teachers because then they don’t have to cover class and don’t have to be substitutes,” Edwards said.
The worry that some council members seem to share is financial concerns.
Sterling Wilder, the Ward II council member, said he is worried about the financial side of these plans.
“Real estate taxes just decreased, so we have less money coming in than the projection for incomes,” Wilder said. “There’s got to be some trade-offs because along with the money we need for renovations we need to also maintain our schools.”
Wilder said he wants to make sure every member of the board and council is thinking about the communities their decisions are affecting, and that while the finances are important, their decisions will affect everyone involved in the school system.
Chris Faraldi, the city’s vice mayor and Ward IV representative, said he believes it’s too soon to say what the council and school board will decide on concerning the facilities plan.
“It’s incumbent on us to make the decision based on what is the most efficient use of the resources at hand at present,” Faraldi said. “And then how would that decision impact the city over the next 10 to 20 years?”
Redistricting is one the forefront of Faraldi’s mind when it comes to these decisions, he said. Before anything can be done, redistricting needs to be done first.
“But the fact is, we have lots of different schools and lots of different choices, right?” Wodicka said. “So that’s a community conversation.”