By Keith Perrigan
Over the last several weeks our commonwealth has dealt with a tremendous amount of troubling news.
However, high poverty school divisions, especially small and rural school divisions, got some much needed good news this weekend when Gov. Ralph Northam proposed amendments to dedicate a portion of the commonwealth’s casino revenues to school construction. Having grown up in a conservative area of Virginia, that has historically disagreed with gambling, it is important to point out that supporting the governor’s amendment does not indicate a support of gambling, or even support for casinos.
The casino legislation has already won General Assembly approval. Supporting this amendment only provides support for allowing some of the funds from the state’s share of gaming revenue be redirected to our critical school construction needs.
Since the revenue generation has already been approved, it makes sense to support an amendment that addresses one of Virginia’s greatest educational dilemmas.
Here are some of the sad facts about school facilities in Virginia and in the city of Bristol for which there is currently no remedy:
- Over half of Virginia’s schools were built over 50 years ago;
- More than 28% of Virginia’s schools were built before World War II;
- Bristol’s newest school was built in 1974. Our oldest in 1916;
- Three of our buildings are completely handicapped inaccessible. The other three are only partially accessible;
- At two of our elementary schools we “scrub air” daily in order to create an environment that is acceptable to teaching and learning;
- Some of our buildings are still riddled with asbestos and are mitigated for the presence of radon;
- We transferred a 5th grade student from their home school to a handicap accessible school because of a broken leg;
- In the last month, a 20-foot sink hole formed under one of our schools and it appears there could be structural damage as a result; and
- About the same time, the pool (built in 1979) at another nearby school inexplicably lost all of its water.
I am thankful for the continuous advocacy of Sen. Todd Pillion and Del. Israel O’Quinn, who have been fighting for state funding for our struggling school facilities. Like the governor, they have seen firsthand the inequities in school facilities that exist between affluent and high poverty communities.
While Bristol and other divisions in Southwest Virginia have serious school building issues, there are other divisions that have similar, or even worse, school infrastructure concerns. Elected officials and educators from Norfolk to Petersburg, from Giles to Brunswick and from Portsmouth to Richmond recognize the gravity of our school facility crisis.
Now is the time for our elected senators and delegates, especially those representing rural and urban school divisions, to help economically challenged areas of Virginia provide healthy, safe environments for students and teachers. Earmarking some of the casino proceeds to address such a challenging and expensive problem could restore funding for school facilities to levels not seen in at least 10 years.
Continuing to send students to buildings that have leaking roofs, aren’t accessible for the disabled, have poor air quality and other reasons for health concerns is both immoral and unethical. Taking action to care for our children and educators however, would be a step in the right direction to care for our community. I hope all legislators will come together on Wednesday to accept the governor’s amendment and show their commitment to Virginia’s schools and students.
Keith Perrigan, Ed.D., is superintendent of Bristol Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, which represents 76 of the 132 school divisions in Virginia.