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EDITORIAL

Editorial: Botetourt County’s $4.5 million mix-up

The Botetourt County School Board at their Aug. 11, 2022, meeting.

The Botetourt County School Board at their Aug. 11, 2022, meeting.

“What we’ve been doing in the past 10 years is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said the Botetourt County Schools Superintendent. “These departments have been doing an outstanding job of trying to find money to fix things that really need to be fixed. After a while, when you start delaying things for 10 years, you can no longer find that money. You just can’t, because the buildings are going to start falling apart.”

The Botetourt superintendent who uttered those words was not the man currently in the job, Jonathan Russ, but his predecessor, Lisa Chen, during a March 2020 presentation on the school system’s brand new capital improvement plan. She said then that the school staff had identified about $2.5 million in urgent capital improvement needs “in order to ensure the safety of our buildings.”

At the start of the 2022-23 school year, not only has the level of need worsened, but a strange mix-up has torn away hope for a timely solution with the speed that Lucy whips the football out of Charlie Brown’s path.

To put it simply, when it came to the $4.5 million line item for capital improvements in the 2022-23 school budget, apparently the school district and the county government each assumed the other was treating — or that state or federal funds were somehow filling in the gap. But in fact this crucial line item had no funding source.

During an Aug. 11 meeting, Botetourt County School Board Chair Anna Weddle noted that the board established a formal capital improvement plan in 2020 — the plan that former superintendent Chen was discussing in that livestreamed meeting two years earlier. Weddle lamented, “It has not been funded each year, making this the third year with no capital improvements being funded.”

No reasonable person should consider this acceptable. Case in point, school board member Jenny Wilson described how the lack of funding for school facility improvements means that the most prominent feature of the Buchanan Elementary School playground is “a big pile of dirt in a playground with caution tape.” She was correct that a new business prospect would find that to be a big turn-off.

Rather than focus too hard on this unfortunate and debilitating misunderstanding, let’s back the camera up to get a larger view. Aged and deteriorating school buildings are a $25 billion problem throughout Virginia, especially in rural and inner city areas, and only this year has a determined handful of legislators managed to goad their colleagues in the General Assembly into taking action. That action so far involves setting aside $400 million for base grants to allot to school districts, of which Botetourt is expected to receive a little over $2 million, which frankly in today’s economy doesn’t pay for much construction. Botetourt can also apply for competitive school construction grants down the road, though that can’t be counted as money in the bank.

Virginia’s typical county government system, in which elected school boards have no ability to fund their own budgets and must appeal to an elected board of supervisors for access to the county purse, creates an adversarial relationship that often results in chronic stagnation, especially in conservative rural localities where any given supervisor’s number one directive from voters will be to keep taxes as low as possible.

Anyone who wants to cast such counties’ school system problems as entirely self-inflicted, though, should be aware that these days building a new school can range from $26 million for an elementary to more than $100 million for a high school, big ticket items many Southwest Virginia counties could not easily afford even if they taxed their citizenry to the gills. This is why the state legislature has to set aside the tradition of leaving school construction funding up to local governments and get involved.

Zeroing back in on Botetourt County, Weddle said school and county officials are meeting to make sure this budget mistake is not repeated. We propose that the county would benefit from an even higher level meeting of the minds. Perhaps the supervisors and school board should meet jointly to discuss how the problem of funding Botetourt schools’ capital improvement budget can be permanently solved, and where that money could come from if the county doesn’t have it. A safe, modernized school system should be a common goal.

Perhaps Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, powerful vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee and possessed of a sterling reputation for getting things done, could provide the boards with insights.

Roanoke County Public Schools has benefited from such meetings, as supervisors and school board members have worked toward a plan for replacing the 60-year-old Burton Center for Arts and Technology, a vital element of the county’s education offerings that urgently needs upgrading. Botetourt County is overdue for a similar breakthrough.

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