When Franklin County High School seniors gather at Cy Dillon Stadium in red and white caps and gowns, the moment is bittersweet for county school board officials.

Graduation marks another generation of students joining the ranks of the school’s alumni, but also another year of opportunity lost for students denied the chance to take career and technical education courses because of crowded facilities.

“That’s just the hardest thing to swallow,” said P.D. Hambrick, a longtime school board member.

Whether financially hard-pressed or better off, school divisions across Virginia face the dilemma: Though state tax money helps fund school operations, localities are largely on their own for building or renovating schools.

For years now, Franklin County officials have struggled with crowding at career and technical education facilities. This limits the number of children the school can serve in programs ranging from auto body and building trades to television production and robotics.

Efforts to renovate and expand the Rocky Mount high school’s career and technical education facilities have progressed in fits and starts over the years, but the project is currently at a standstill.

It’s been more than a year since the county board of supervisors, which has the power to allocate funding for the project, has held a joint meeting with the school board. They last met in April 2018. The roughly $70 million price tag for upgrades to CTE facilities, along with other renovations to the high school, was revealed to supervisors during a joint meeting in October 2017.

At a board of supervisors strategic planning session in November 2018, members said moving forward with the project was a priority, expressing frustration with the lack of progress. Supervisors planned to determine how much money the county could reasonably spend and arrange a joint meeting with the school board by year’s end.

Neither of those things happened.

With Franklin County High School’s graduation scheduled for May 25, it’s another year gone by.

Different county, similar issues

Franklin County isn’t alone in this struggle. Its northern neighbor, Roanoke County, also has an aging and crowded career and technical education school.

The Burton Center for Arts and Technology is housed in Salem and serves students from all five of Roanoke County’s high schools.

Although each high school offers some career or technical courses, the Burton Center provides the majority of the county’s programs, including trade and industry, cybersecurity, and health care. Burton is also home to some programs not considered CTE.

As in Franklin County, the needs have been apparent for several years, but securing funding for the project has proven challenging. At one time, the Burton Center was among the top projects on the school division’s capital improvement plan.

Roanoke and Franklin counties are demographically different. Roanoke County, with a population of more than 93,000, has a much larger tax base and a higher median household income at $62,134. Its real estate tax rate, too, is significantly higher at $1.09 per $100 of assessed value. Meanwhile Franklin County, with a population of approximately 56,000 and median income of $51,208, has one of the lowest real estate tax rates in the region, at 61 cents per $100 of assessed value — and that’s after a 6-cent rate increase was adopted last year.

In Franklin County, coming up with the funds is the hard part, especially given the scope of the project, which some supervisors have criticized as becoming too broad. Roanoke County is better off financially, but Burton has fallen off the list in favor of other capital projects.

Brenda Long, executive director of the Virginia Association for Career and Technical Education, acknowledged that such programs can be expensive and local school divisions may struggle to support them financially.

Facilities and equipment need to be kept up-to-date so students acquire the skills relevant to today’s workforce, not the workforce of their parents or grandparents.

“We have to address our facilities and our equipment needs, because we certainly don’t want to train students on obsolete equipment that they would not find in the workplace,” she said.

Long said she generally believes career and technical education has the support of school administrators and local government officials, not to mention business leaders who might one day employ the students enrolled in these courses.

“There’s a lot of support for it, yes. Does it have a cost for facilities and programs? It does,” Long said. “But without it, if we’re not preparing our students to be competent and well qualified in the workforce, then we’re not helping our local economy.”

Crowded schools

Franklin County first began housing its career and technical education programs in a building across the street from the high school in 2000. But the building, now known as West Campus, is much older. The former apparel factory was built in the 1950s, said CTE Director Robbie Dooley.

Today, the building is cramped. Though the bulk of the high school’s CTE classes are held at West Campus, Dooley said a few, including business, health occupations, and family and consumer classes, are held in another building on the main campus.

The Burton Center, built in a floodplain within Salem’s city limits, has three main classroom buildings. The first two were built in the 1960s, the third in 1979. When the school opened, it was called the Roanoke County Education Center and featured nine programs.

Today, some of the classic CTE offerings remain. But Burton has added more modern vocational programs such as cybersecurity, video game design and robotics.

Contributing to the space crunch at Burton is the fact that it houses other programs , such as classes for English language learners and the Governor’s STEM Academy.

Crowding is perhaps the largest issue for both counties.

In Franklin County, an average of 1,600 students take at least one CTE course a year, Dooley said. But getting into the class they want — or sometimes any class at all — can be a challenge. For example, this year, 130 students requested the popular introduction to culinary arts as their first choice. Another 181 listed the class as their second choice. A total of 98 students were enrolled.

“There’s many kids that do not get their first, second or third choice,” Dooley said.

In Roanoke County, more than 230 students who requested CTE classes at BCAT for next year were turned down, though CTE Director Jason Suhr said that number is “in flux” and more students will get in. The Burton Center offers 800 seats for career and technical education programs.

In both localities, officials have said an updated career and technical education center would need more space and a modern flexible design that would allow students to be trained for jobs of the future, even those that might not yet exist.

In August 2017, an architecture firm shared its vision for the Franklin County project with the school board. The plans showed the career and technical education center on the main high school campus, housed in two new buildings. They also included a large addition connecting the Ramsey Building and the gym, a small connector between the Ramsey and Law buildings and a new track and field.

The ballpark cost for the project was approximately $70 million, but the architecture firm warned that the slower the process, the more costly it would become. Had the project been bid four years earlier, in 2013, the firm expected a cost closer to $50 million.

In Roanoke County, an engineering firm was hired in 2016 to assess Burton and other schools. The firm noted that updates to Burton over the years had been limited, mostly serving to retrofit classrooms based on program needs.

Completing all renovations suggested by the firm would cost an estimated $25 million. That price tag prompted the board to consider other options; Burton was removed from the capital improvement plan.

Balancing wants, needs and costs

In Franklin County, it has been a long and bitter battle between the board of supervisors and school board as they try to come to an agreement about how much can or should be spent on career and technical education facilities.

From the supervisors’ perspective, this is just one of many capital projects they must fund. Many have said the scope has expanded well beyond career and technical education to a total revamp of the high school campus more akin to a wish list.

Chairman Cline Brubaker, one of two supervisors who has served on a joint CTE committee with school board members, said he doesn’t disagree that other parts of the high school could be improved.

“But is it affordable for the taxpayers of Franklin County?” he said.

In December 2018, financial advisers with Davenport & Co. said the county could take on up to $100 million in new debt over the next five years. That’s not just for schools, but for all county capital projects.

Supervisors said they are united in the school board’s belief that expanding opportunities for children in career and technical education is necessary, particularly as the county looks to develop its Summit View Business Park, for which it has borrowed millions of dollars. A qualified workforce is essential to snagging a business prospect.

“I think the board of supervisors has expressed a desire to move forward with career and technical, but we haven’t reached a mutual understanding with the school system on what that figure ought to be,” Brubaker said.

Bob Camicia, the other supervisor on the joint CTE committee, said career and technical education is just one piece of the puzzle needed to bring Franklin County back to the growth stage, which could help prevent future tax increases.

School board members are frustrated by a lack of communication with supervisors and that the effort has once again sputtered to a halt.

“Being in favor of it and not doing anything about it, that just doesn’t make any sense,” said Hambrick, the school board member, who was on the CTE committee.

School board member Charles Jamison, who has also served on the joint CTE committee, said officials need direction from the board of supervisors. If the project is too broad or expensive, give the order to rein it in.

“We keep going back to the point of let’s put it off a little longer, let’s put it off a little longer. Well, the price tag keeps going up the whole time,” Hambrick said. “It gets more unattractive the higher the price tag gets. Sooner or later you’ve got to bite that bullet.”

Money and priorities

Jerry Canada served on the Roanoke County School Board for 25 years before retiring in 2017. During his tenure, he said, officials often talked about Burton’s future. But they never arrived at a solution.

“It’s still sitting there like it was when I first got on the board,” Canada said.

The debate often boiled down to money and priorities, Canada said. Roanoke County has 26 other schools and five operations buildings to maintain.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding a path forward for the Burton Center — school board members are contemplating a rebuild or a regional program with nearby school divisions — other capital projects have moved ahead of it.

Roanoke County has spent tens of millions on renovations and new construction at other schools.

Over the past decade, the county has funded five major school renovations, one partial renovation, construction of a new elementary school, and an addition to an existing school, among other projects. Cave Spring High is in the middle of a $43.4 million renovation and expansion.

Though several expensive projects still remain on Roanoke County’s capital to-do list, it’s made more progress than Franklin County, where the last major facility project was the opening of a new elementary school in 2009.

Roanoke County school officials tap part of the school division’s annual funding to pay for projects through the capital improvement program. The county board of supervisors approves an additional $10 million for school projects in two of every three years through a joint capital funding agreement. The division’s year-end balance policy governing unspent money from the annual operating budget also designates all rollover funds be used for capital projects.

School board Chairman Don Butzer said it’s clear renovating Burton is not an option, and he’s not sure about building a new center in the same location.

“It’s safe, there’s no doubt about that,” Butzer said. “We don’t have buckets in the hallways. With respect to the maintenance of it, to the safety of it, those aren’t the issues,” he said. “It’s just not a facility that is conducive to doing the kinds of things that we want to do at the Burton Center.”

Burton is one of six schools that need serious work, Butzer said. The others are three elementary schools, Hidden Valley Middle and William Byrd High.

Combined, the six projects would cost at least $120 million and take 15 to 20 years to complete, Butzer said.

Ability to pay

The quality of a school division’s facilities hinges on the locality’s ability and willingness to pay. And that varies greatly across Virginia.

School divisions must work with the dollars their localities have, Hambrick said. Given the low tax rates in Franklin County, its offerings can’t compare to those of wealthier localities.

“You look at a Northern Virginia, you look at Franklin County, you look at far Southwest Virginia — education in Virginia is not equitable,” he said. “It is just not equitable.”

Suhr, the Roanoke County CTE director, said his dream facility looks like the Academies of Loudoun in Northern Virginia that opened last fall. He recently toured the $126.2 million center, which Suhr described as built for modern uses with flexible space to house workforce development programs.

Of course, Suhr noted, Loudoun County’s population has surged over the past 25 years, leading to an increase in tax dollars. Loudoun has nearly four times as many residents as Roanoke County, and its school system operates on a $1.2 billion annual budget, compared with $171.3 million in Roanoke County.

Most communities do their best to provide adequate school facilities for children, but that’s easier for some than others, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for better school facilities.

“It might be a school from the ’70s that’s well cared for but doesn’t have the kinds of tools that you’re going to need for current educational programming, particularly around CTE, which has really changed,” she said.

Filardo said she believes state and federal governments have an obligation to step in to make capital spending more equitable. But in the meantime, she said, there’s no “magic bullet” for localities that struggle to fund these projects.

“You’ve got to have the public will and then you need the governmental capacity to deliver,” she said. “Without both of them, it’s just not going to happen.”

Localities in Virginia are largely responsible for school construction — a 2016 report by three groups that study school infrastructure put Virginia in the bottom half of states for its share of construction funding. That means elected officials in localities experiencing little to no growth, like Franklin County, usually must turn to the unpopular solution of a tax increase to fund major projects.

And in conservative Franklin County, a tax increase is typically a political “kiss of death,” Jamison said.

“We keep touting the tax rate as low and low and low, and you attract people here because of that, but it’s not helping the school system,” Hambrick said.

It’s understandable, Jamison said, that supervisors would be hesitant to borrow such a great sum of money. But, he said, progress usually requires spending.

A regional solution?

In recent years, Roanoke County officials began discussing the idea of a regional CTE partnership with other school divisions as a cheaper alternative to replacing the Burton Center.

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, advocated in 2016 for exploring the idea of a Roanoke Valley Governor’s School specifically for CTE. The General Assembly provided $100,000 in state tax money to fund a feasibility study led by Virginia Western Community College. A number of local school divisions, including Franklin and Roanoke counties, participated.

The study found a need for some type of regional partnership, based largely on the results of a workplace survey of employers. But the current funding models don’t provide for a cooperatively funded academic-year regional school because unlike governor’s school students, CTE students don’t fall into the gifted category.

Head initially proposed creating a governor’s school for career and technical education to reduce the stigma often attached to such courses. But he also acknowledged it could be a cost-savings mechanism.

“The whole point is, if you’re going to have a regional program, everybody doesn’t need to have a state-of-the-art everything,” he said.

School board member Mike Wray said work at Burton has been delayed in part because of interest in exploring the regional option, which he supports.

Butzer said a regional program “makes total sense” if it would allow area school divisions to meet student demand and save money.

The idea has not been discussed extensively in Franklin County, but neither Jamison nor Hambrick expressed support for a regional program, raising concerns about the cost of transportation and the time students would lose on the bus.

Karen Hiltz, a member of the Franklin County School Board, said a regional program could be a way to reduce costs, sparing localities from each having to build and maintain their own facilities. She said the project should be scaled back to focus just on career and technical programs.

“We have regional governor’s school, we have regional special ed programs,” she said. “So I think that it would be smart and frugal to consider regional CTE.”

Letting the voters decide?

When Franklin County last sought to build an educational center focused on technology and career exploration, a referendum brought it to fruition.

In 1994, voters approved a $14.7 million bond referendum to build what’s now known as the Gereau Center and upgrade the county’s crowded elementary schools.

Armed with a 48-page report, then-Superintendent Leonard Gereau, for whom the center is named, went out in the community with school board members to drum up support for the project. The referendum passed in 20 of 22 precincts.

Jamison said he thinks the career and technical education center will follow that path and eventually go to a referendum.

“But in order to get it on that ballot and get it as a referendum, we still need the board of supervisors to say, ‘OK, this is a valid issue, this is something that the people of the county need to think about, and it’s something that we’d like to see as well,’ ” he said.

Hambrick said he believes it’s time to let voters weigh in.

“Then you got a clear understanding that they’re willing to pay for it,” he said.

Supervisors said they’ve not looked closely at a referendum as an option. But Camicia said a referendum is not a cure-all; a solid proposal endorsed by the board would still be required.

“Whether it’s a referendum or not, it’s got to be reasonable,” Camicia said. “If the board of supervisors doesn’t buy it, I personally don’t think the public’s going to buy it.”

Talks to continue

Projects in both localities will remain in a state of paralysis until officials decide the path forward.

In Roanoke County, that means choosing whether to renovate or rebuild the Burton Center or pursue a regional CTE program with their neighbors.

The school board plans to hold a joint meeting with the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in July, where they’re expected to discuss funding for major capital projects, including the Burton Center.

But it’s unclear where Burton will fall on the list.

“Every time you choose another big project to do in front of it, that’s another five or six years down the road,” Canada said.

In Franklin County, progress requires agreeing on the scope of the project and what it should cost.

Brubaker and Camicia said they hoped the board of supervisors would determine at some point this year what could reasonably be spent on the project. Once they have that figure, Hambrick and Jamison said, the school board could adjust its plans to fit within it.

A solution requires the two boards to come together — not always an easy task.

“Some people, I think, haven’t wanted a decision to be made,” Camicia said. “Some people just enjoy a good fight.”

The longer these discussions continue, the more students are denied an opportunity to take career and technical education courses, to perhaps find their calling. And all the while, the cost rises.

“When you don’t reach a decision, you stagnate,” Brubaker said. “You don’t go anywhere.”

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Casey Fabris covers Franklin County, Rocky Mount and Ferrum College.

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