Besides having to deal with declining enrollment and declining state funding, school officials in Wise County last year found themselves confronting yet another problem: Buzzards.
For reasons unclear, buzzards took a particular liking to the roof of St. Paul Elementary School and began tearing it apart, flying the pieces away to make their nests.
The school system was so strapped for cash it couldn’t afford to replace the roof. Instead, it was forced to resort to contracting with someone to bring in dead buzzards to drive off the live ones. Later, it turned to the types of waving inflatables you often see at car dealers. This might be a funny story, perhaps even one about innovative solutions to unusual problems. However, it’s also an all-too-perfect metaphor for what’s happening in the far southwestern corner of Virginia, a part of the state that one school superintendent there has called “Virginia’s dirty little secret.”
In the mountains where an entire economy depends on coal, public schools have reached a tipping point.
One after another, districts have consolidated schools, sending students home on hour-long bus rides.
They’ve delayed bus replacements and building repairs, like the elementary school roof that buzzards started tearing apart and repurposing for nests.
Schools have cut electives.
Retiring teachers, counselors, librarians and aides haven’t been replaced, and neither have decade-old textbooks.
Every cut far Southwest Virginia school districts make picks the budget closer to the bone. Everything is on the table – in Dickenson County, the school board heard a proposal last year that would have saved about $40.
“We’re keeping our school division together with a prayer and duct tape,” Dickenson Superintendent Haydee Robinson said.
Virginia is often portrayed as a glowing example of the new economy, a high-tech center of international stature. All that’s true — as long as you’re talking about certain parts of Virginia. However, there’s also a part of Virginia where the old economy is dying, a place where people stand in lines at the county fairgrounds each summer to get health care in mobile units designed for Third World conditions — because that’s the only way they’re ever going to see a doctor.
The demise of coal is a global trend that’s been playing out for decades now, but here’s one way that plays out in Virginia’s coal counties: School enrollment is plummeting, a combination of a baby bust following the 2008 recession — and people simply moving away in search of work. In some counties, enrollment is down by nearly 13 percent in the past six years. Meanwhile, state funding for coalfield schools is also down, because state funding is generally tied to enrollment. That seems logical enough until you get to the reality on the ground: Just because enrollment goes down doesn’t necessarily mean the cost of running the school system goes down. It costs the same to hire a teacher whether there are 20 students in a classroom or 10. It costs the same to run school buses over their routes, regardless of how many students they’re picking up.
In theory, when state funding goes down, local governments could cover the balance. But they can’t. One of the big sources of local revenue in the coalfields has been the coal severance tax — but it’s down, too. In Wise County, coal severance tax collections are down 80 percent over the past decade. What had been the county’s second biggest source of revenue is now almost negligible.
Classes that would be considered normal in other school systems have simply been eliminated because the coalfields can’t afford to hire the teachers for them. Those are the easy cuts. Dickenson County closed three high schools and merged them into one to cut costs; there are no more cost savings to be found there. That’s why teachers there — asked to come up with a way to save money — found themselves investigating how much money could be saved if they used plain white paper instead of colored paper. The answer: About $40. Even that miniscule amount was sufficient enough that it went before the school board as one possible response to the funding crisis school systems in the coalfields face. This is not the Virginia touted in the state’s fancy marketing. But it’s Virginia nonetheless.
The General Assembly convenes today in Richmond; we’re also beginning a new campaign for governor. The situation now unfolding in the coalfields ought to be enough to shame Virginia politicians into action. Will it?
We have yet to hear a single candidate for governor talk about the dire state of the coalfields’ schools — much less propose a solution. Republicans like to talk about cutting taxes and regulations. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam — until recently the only Democratic candidate — talks about making the state a world leader in biotechnology. All these are fine things. But none of those fine things are going to fix the problems confronting Virginia’s coalfields.
Democrats rarely mention the coalfields at all. The most we hear from Republicans is “end the war on coal,” as if that were even possible. Across the country, utilities have retired about 50 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity since 2010; that 50 gigawatts of demand for coal that’s not coming back — even if not a single gigawatt is retired from here on out. China, the world’s biggest importer of coal, is investing heavily in renewables. India, another big coal importer, just opened the world’s biggest solar farm. In any case, fixing the coalfields’ economy is a long-term proposition and right now there’s an immediate problem, one that not even a short-term uptick in coal will solve. Bumper sticker slogans won’t paper over this problem.
Last month, the Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled state Senate observed: “Coal is not going to save that region — we’re going to have to get involved.” All the coalfield legislators are Republicans. In theory, then, this ought to be the occasion for a grand, bipartisan solution. In reality, no one should hold their breath. The problem is that both parties would have to do things they don’t like: Republicans would have to engage state government more than they are philosophically inclined to do. And Democrats would have to actually care about a region they wrote off politically a long time ago.
We have been down this road before. In the early 1990s, a coalition of rural school districts sued the state, arguing that Virginia’s system for funding schools violated the state Constitution — and left rural systems at a disadvantage. The state Supreme Court ruled otherwise. The words that Justice Roscoe Stephenson Jr. wrote provide instructive reading today: “Nowhere does the Constitution require equal, or substantially equal, funding or programs among and within the Commonwealth’s school divisions. … Any relief to which the students may be entitled must come from the General Assembly.’’
So courts have already said exactly where the responsibility lies; now the disparity between Virginia’s haves and have-nots is simply more severe. Somehow, we suspect if a school system in the urban crescent were forced to use dead buzzards to scare away the live ones destroying a schoolhouse roof, the General Assembly would be doing something about it.