PULASKI — Talks of what to do with Pulaski County’s two antiquated middle schools were ongoing for decades until a 2017 referendum finally put the community at a crossroads.
In a county that had shied from tax increases for years, the referendum for a new consolidated school passed with 65% of nearly 12,000 voters. The catch was a 13-cent real estate tax increase — the largest one-time increase in the county’s history.
Fast forward: Now the new school, coming with a more than $47 million price tag, is finally taking shape. School officials say the project will be ready for the 2020 school year.
Although most citizens and public officials agree a good school system is an essential element to a healthy community, how to keep up with aging infrastructure can often lead to political stalemates lasting for years or even decades.
Doing nothing by letting years pass without generating revenue for such projects can prove more costly by the simple premise of the time-value of money.
And sometimes, localities find themselves with too much to tackle at one time — and that puts even more pressure on elected bodies to find millions of dollars in project funding through any other way than a sizable tax increase.
Taxes are one of the main political issues that always stir debate. And Virginia’s governmental system has elected or appointed school boards — neither with taxing authority — that must ask city councils or boards of supervisors for their local budget funding.
Pulaski County, Montgomery County and the city of Radford are examples of what localities — each with its own situation, financing power and need — can face when it comes to aging schools and the political will to react.
Sometimes, the fate of problematic older schools is decided by a simple Republican or Democratic majority on the elected board that holds the purse strings in a given locality. And sometimes that decision can come down to a few hundred votes or less in one race that can change a board’s majority opinion. Montgomery County’s board of supervisors, for instance, has had a 4-3 split — variably Democratic or Republican — for more than a decade.
In Pulaski County, the Republican-led board of supervisors decided not to make a decision on a new middle school itself — but to hand the matter to voters.
Meanwhile, it took a 2018 overhaul of Radford City Council to break the stalemate of a decadelong discussion to renovate its oldest school, McHarg Elementary, which opened in the 1950s.
The two middle schools — Dublin, built in 1953 and Pulaski in 1927 — are stark reminders of what can happen when schools are not maintained.
Said county school Superintendent Kevin Siers: “Many classrooms only have one outlet. The buildings are just falling apart. The facilities are just not conducive to 21st-century learning. The time to consider renovation was probably 20 years ago, maybe even longer than that.”
Siers also noted that current enrollment levels and future projections do not justify maintaining two middle schools.
School board vice chairman Mike Barbour said after talks turned stagnant with the supervisors about the problems with the two middle schools, the school board asked for the referendum, which the supervisors approved.
School board member Paige Cash said that she believes some supervisors didn’t think the referendum would pass.
“They thought the county would never go for a 12 or 13 cent tax increase. … In retrospect, I’m glad that it went to a referendum. It left no doubt that that’s what the voters wanted,” she said.
Board of supervisors chairman Andy McCready said he and the other supervisors — all Republicans except for Democrat Dean Pratt — were in favor of the measure because it left the voters in control.
“There was always going to be something done. It was just whether it would be a remodel or a new school,” he said. “I think something like this should always go to referendum … the voters spoke out and said they want this.”
Community groups in favor of a new school as well as one opposed to it formed before the November 2017 referendum.
“I never had any doubt it would pass, otherwise the whole thing would have been futile,” Barbour said.
County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said trusting the voters was the right decision. He sees the investment in schools as not only societal but economic .
“The reason it is an economic investment as well is because we are no longer educating someone else’s workforce. We are educating our workforce,” he said.
“You can’t afford to just invest in education. You’ve got to invest in schools, invest in quality of life and recreational assets and recreational programming. Otherwise it would be a onetime investment and you’d never be able to afford it again.”
The county has a “40-by-30” initiative for 40,000 residents by 2030. The county’s curent population is approximately 35,000. Education is just one of five components, according to the plan. The others are quality of life and outdoor recreation, economic development and job creation, residential and commercial development and workforce development.
Sweet said the combination will make the county a more attractive place to live, which ultimately helps the school system.
Montgomery County’s schools serve one of Southwest Virginia’s most affluent municipalities, but they are no strangers to infrastructural challenges.
In addition to aging infrastructure, the county’s school division is contending with rapid growth. Montgomery is one of the commonwealth’s fastest growing counties and is on pace to become Western Virginia’s most populous locality soon.
The growth has particularly stressed the school division’s Christiansburg strand, for which more than $100 million in capital projects was approved earlier this year. All are renovations, in large part to end the use of mobile units at schools in the town .
Montgomery County plans to issue $30 million in bonds and use an additional $5 million in cash to pay for the expansions of Christiansburg Primary, Christiansburg Elementary and Belview Elementary schools.
Also, the county will take on more debt for the $70 million renovation and expansion of Christiansburg High School. Construction on that project is expected to start in July 2022.
School board member Connie Froggatt said the county hasn’t always made the best use of tax revenue when addressing school needs.
“Long term, I don’t know that it has been handled well,” she said. Previous boards of supervisors “would do things like reduce tax rates at assessments when property values would go up. Really not accounting for increases in inflation, cost of living .”
The county has a four-year tax reassessment, and that, in the growing county, affects a significant amount of new money. The most recent reassessment generated over $6 million in new money in the 2019-20 budget.
In 2007, supervisors — as is their authority — lowered the rate from 74 to 63 cents to offset that year’s reassessment increase for property owners. Four years earlier, supervisors lowered the tax rate from 81.5 to 64 cents.
That tax rate hasn’t been lowered since 2007.
In 2012, the Democrat-dominated board of supervisors passed a 12-cent tax increase for the new schools in Blacksburg and Riner, which was at least among the largest one-time increase in the county’s history.
Froggatt said supervisors seem to have made better use of tax dollars when addressing school needs during this decade.
The board of supervisors seemed more willing to raise tax rates to address certain needs during its most recent period of Democratic control, Froggatt said. Now under Republican control, the board has been more reluctant to raise taxes, but still takes advantage of increases in property values, she said.
Supervisors earlier this year voted to keep the county’s property tax rate at 89 cents as assessments went up by an average of 8%.
Demands to increase taxes in the near future might be inevitable, but they should be raised in moderation, school board member Mark Cherbaka said.
“I’m more moderate on all of those things. I don’t want to just say raise taxes at every chance to solve any problem,” Cherbaka said. “But I do think our taxes are low here, and I question whether or not we can continue to maintain the level of education and our capital needs at the level they need to be with the current taxes we have.”
How receptive the county will be to future higher taxes will likely depend on the outcome of the two competitive supervisor races in November.
The current Republican-dominated board voted down proposed tax rate increases in 2018 and 2017 that would have raised money for school infrastructure, the hiring of additional school resource officers and teacher pay raises.
After elections later this year, the board’s partisan makeup could either remain the same or swing to as high as a 5-2 Democratic majority.
“You never say never, but raising taxes would not be my first choice because that puts the burden on the citizens, businesses, employers. You have to look at the need, justifications for it,” Sherri Blevins, the Republican candidate for District B supervisor, said. “Every time we need money, we cannot just raise taxes. We have to look at the long-term impact. Now if there are no other ways, that would be something to consider. But we’ll have to know all the facts.”
One potential solution is the continued reliance on a school capital earmark that supervisors raised earlier this year, Blevins said.
In 2013, supervisors raised the county’s tax rate by 2 cents to the current amount of 89 cents. Money raised by those two additional cents created a school capital earmark that was recently used in the expansion of Falling Branch Elementary.
Supervisors raised the earmark by another half cent earlier this year.
“Raising taxes is not always my very first avenue of doings,” Brian Lawson, Blevins’ Democratic opponent said. “But if it’s needed, yes I would go along with it, if it makes sense.”
Lawson said one potential step to ease fears about tax hikes is increasing transparency on how tax dollars are spent.
“As a small business owner, I like to see where my money is going. We look at budgets all the time,” he said. “I’m not opposed to a tax increase. I would just like to show folks how we’re doing it.”
Incumbent Republican Supervisor Darrell Sheppard is running against Democratic challenger Robbie Jones in District E.
“I don’t think we need a tax increase,” Sheppard said. “I’m not going to vote for one in any of the next three or four years, assuming I win re-election.”
Tax revenue should go up naturally because the growth is adding more houses to the tax rolls, Sheppard said.
He also cited the ongoing expansion of Virginia Tech-affiliated real estate and efforts by the county to glean more taxes from those properties.
“Nobody wants to raise taxes,” Jones said. But “I can’t think of a county that can’t raise taxes.”
Jones said raising the rate by a cent every other year could be better than waiting several years and then being unprepared for unforeseen events .
Jones, who’s the head custodian at Christiansburg Middle School, said several buildings are not up to code and are operating beyond their expiration dates.
“I think what hit home is when the Blacksburg High School gym roof collapsed,” she said of the 2010 event.
The glaring school infrastructural issue in the city is McHarg Elementary.
The K-2 school was built in the ’50s and has hardly been touched since, according to school officials. Superintendent Rob Graham said the school system has been presenting the same list of major projects, including renovation at the high school, to the city council since 2009.
Nothing happened until this year’s budget, the first for the new council elected in 2018. The council now has a 4-1 Democratic majority, with three members elected on a platform that includes finding money to improve school facilities.
Before 2018, Republican-led councils had not raised taxes in nearly a decade and had dipped into the city’s reserve funds to cover operational costs.
One of the three most recently elected members, councilwoman Jessie Foster, said while campaigning she heard the same message over and over: Please increase my taxes.
“It was something I thought I would never hear, but people saw the writing on the wall,” said Foster, a former school board member.
School board chairwoman Lee Slusher said she was a student at McHarg when it was new and that it looks the same today.
“We are looking at a 20th-century building and trying to make a 21st-century classroom,” she said at a meeting with council.
Some officials expressed concern that investing so much in schools could further disrupt Radford’s struggling economy. Slusher said continuing to do nothing would stifle Radford’s economic development, as parents and businesses often look at a school system first when deciding where to settle down or take up shop.
“We must move forward. Our community and schools are a huge attraction. If we don’t, it’s going to cost all of us as taxpayers,” she said.
During budget season, citizens came out in droves to express their support for the capital projects and for increasing taxes to pay for it.
But the relatively new council did not act without much deliberation, knowing it likely would need to pass a hefty tax increase. And it did: A sizable 6-cent real estate tax hike, with 4 cents tied to school projects.
Over the summer, the school system put out to bid plans for renovating McHarg.
The school division plans to host community meetings to gather public feedback in the coming months.
Foster said she believes had the current council not been elected, there would still be no progress with the schools.
“We were at a point where they just weren’t willing to raise taxes. Nobody wants to raise taxes, but sometimes you have to face reality,” she said.
Graham said that since the school projects were first discussed in 2009, prices have gone up more than $10 million, to $30 million.
McHarg has an enrollment of around 400. It has been plagued with overcrowding, having to go as far as converting closets into classrooms. Renovations including a new six-classroom wing have been estimated to cost nearly $11 million.
Also on the improvements list are a $7.3 million “face-lift” of the labs and other areas of Radford High School, an upgrade of $3 million to the high school’s outdoor athletic facilities and an “innovation center” costing $6.3 million.
Mayor David Horton — another of three newest council members — said while there is still a way to go, he thinks the city is moving in the right direction.
“We are doing what we told citizens we would do when we were elected. The future for Radford is bright,” he said.