In Virginia’s coalfields, an economic crisis is turning into a demographic crisis — and a plea for the General Assembly to help.
We all know how the coalfields have been draining population for decades. Some counties in the state’s far southwest corner saw their population peak in 1950 and decline ever since. Lee County’s population has been going down even longer — ever since 1940.
The reasons are also well-known: First came the mechanization of coal mining, which reduced the demand for labor. More recently has come a reduced demand for coal itself.
The reasons for that are more complex than a simplistic “war on coal,” although clearly national policy under the Obama administration has been to wean the country off fossil fuels through more stringent environmental regulations.
At the same time, the exploitation of the Marcellus and Bakken shale fields has flooded the market with natural gas — both cheaper and, arguably, cleaner — and we’ve seen one company after another switch out coal-fired boilers for natural gas. These are not temporary changes in market preferences; these are generational decisions. Once a company makes that investment in natural gas, it’s not going back to coal.
Finally, even the international market for coal has collapsed, and you can’t blame that on overzealous federal regulators in Washington. China is the world’s biggest user of coal, but coal consumption there may have permanently peaked; even that country is investing heavily in wind and solar energy.
In any case, the population decline in the coalfields has generally been a gradual one. In the past year, though, the bottom has fallen out, and that gradual decline has turned into a precipitous drop.
We don’t need a census to tell us that; you can see it in the empty seats of schools in the coalfields.
Let’s look at Wise County.
At the start of the 2011-2012 school year, the county had 6,249 students. The next year, it lost students — down 139 for the school year starting in 2012. It gained 82 when school started in fall 2013, but then saw enrollment go down by 81 for the school year starting in 2014 and then down another 87 for the school year starting in 2017.
You can sense a pattern, right?
Now look at this: Between fall 2015 and spring 2016, Wise County lost 271 students. Over the course of one school year.
The county started fall 2015 with 6,024, just a few hundred shy of what it had four years previously. By spring 2016, enrollment had dwindled to 5,753. That means the county lost more students in one school year than it did in the entire four years prior.
Now look at this: This fall, Wise County schools have 5,631 students. That means the county lost 122 students over the summer — and 393 since this time last year.
This is not the normal wiggle and jiggle of drop-outs and single-year baby booms or busts, or even the occasional family moving in and out. This is a wholesale exodus we’re seeing.
And it’s not just in Wise County. This same phenomenon is playing out in every locality in the coalfields.
- Buchanan County lost 306 students in the four years from fall 2011 to fall 2015, but then lost 228 in the past year.
- Dickenson County lost 153 students over four years, but then lost 236 in the past year.
- Lee County lost 297 students over four years, but then lost 234 in the past year.
- Norton lost 69 students over four years, but then lost 61 in the past year.
- Russell County lost 368 students over four years, but then lost 302 in the past year.
- Tazewell County lost 448 students over four years, but then lost 282 in the past year.
If you want to add that up, here’s what you’ll get: The seven coalfield localities have lost 1,736 students in the past year. That might be a margin of error in some urban school systems, but in small, rural school systems, this is a big loss. Most of these localities lost nearly 7 percent of its enrollment in the past year. Dickenson County has lost 10 percent.
And, of course, that comes on top of the declines the counties had already seen.
Those of you familiar with how schools are funded may have already guessed where this is headed. State funding accounts for about 70 percent of the school budget in many coalfield localities. That state funding is tied to enrollment. Fewer students means fewer state dollars; coalfield schools have already lost nearly 16 percent of their state funding and expect to see it drop even more. Norton school superintendent Keith Perrigan supplies this alarming statistic: “If the most recent decline in enrollment continues, the coalfields stand to lose over $10 million in state revenue by June of 2017 — in the span of just one year.”
However, fewer students doesn’t mean fewer expenses. That’s the essential conundrum of school funding. Whether a teacher has a class of 20 students or 18 students or even just 10 students, that teacher still costs the same to hire. It still costs the same amount to heat or cool the school building. And it still costs the same to run the bus routes over the whole county, even if they have fewer stops.
The cruel bottom line: There are some expenses you simply can’t eliminate, putting schools in the coalfields in the position of essentially having fixed expenses but declining state funding.
In theory, localities could make up the difference — if they could. However, the decline of coal has also meant the decline of one of the coalfields’ biggest sources of tax revenue. A decade ago, the coal severance tax was Wise County’s second biggest source of revenue — $5 million, or about 12 percent of the county’s revenue. Now it’s down to just over $1 million, or about 3 percent of the county’s revenue.
In October, coalfield leaders held a “summit” at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to talk about the fiscal vise grip they’re in. The immediate solution: Ask the General Assembly for special funding (and relief from a variety of unfunded state mandates).
There’s a precedent for this: The state kicks in extra money for otherwise affluent Northern Virginia schools so they can keep their teacher salaries competitive with Maryland and Washington, D.C. The coalfield schools contend they should get some special consideration, too, because of the economic crisis they’re facing.