Today is the biggest shopping day of the year.
By the time some of you read this, maybe you’ll have already been up before dawn for the Black Friday sales rush. For the rest of you, here’s our wish list, in case we happen to be on your Christmas list — and you spot any of these items on the shelves today.
A fix for Virginia’s outdated schools. This is one we asked for last year but didn’t get, so it will sound very familiar. More than half of Virginia’s schools — 52% to be precise — are more than 50 years old. Nearly one-third are 60 or more years old. And nearly 13% — 264 — were built before 1949, which means they will soon be 70 or more years old. Some even date back to before World War I. The age of Virginia’s schools shouldn’t matter, unless they’re unsafe or unable to deliver a modern education. And some clearly aren’t or can’t.
In his inaugural address, Gov. Ralph Northam referenced “crumbling schools.” That wasn’t hyperbole. At George Washington Carver Elementary in Richmond, a fifth-grader was standing in line in 2016 when a five-pound piece of ceiling tile fell hit the child on the head. Five pounds? At Maury High School in Norfolk, a 750-pound chunk of ceiling fell into the auditorium one day. More recently, Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Norfolk has been plagued by rats, roaches and mold. Rats and roaches can infiltrate anywhere but keep in mind that Sherwood Forest is 62 years old and was rated in “poor” condition two years ago. It’s certainly not getting any better. The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reports that the girl’s bathroom is missing stall doors and that broken windows have been patched with boards. If that doesn’t meet the governor’s description of “crumbling,” we don’t know what does. Meanwhile, Lee County in the state’s southwestern corner now offers cybersecurity. Perhaps that’s not what you’d expect from a rural school system in the heart of Appalachia, Lee County is on the cutting edge in many ways. On the other hand, staff has to worry about circuit breakers blowing because the schools there weren’t built with such heavy electrical demands in mind. Some were built when rural electrification was still a novelty.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has been leading a crusade for the state to issue bonds to pay for a statewide campaign of modernizing old schools. A General Assembly committee earlier this year took just three minutes to kill his proposal on a 14-2 vote. This bipartisan lack of interest in the topic baffles us. In theory, there’s a grand coalition available here because Virginia’s oldest schools are all over — some are in rural areas such as Lee County, some are in central cities such as Richmond and Norfolk, some are even in suburban Fairfax County. So why is there so little interest in doing something? The only thing we can figure is that Republicans blanch at spending lots of money and Democrats have largely lost interest in rural areas — and when they do think of school funding, they think in terms of teacher salaries. Perhaps Santa can help here? Or will it take something more practical, such as a concerted push from the business community — which is all for building better roads but is largely silent on schools, even though it depends on schools to produce its workforce.
Dark sky parks west of the Blue Ridge. “Dark sky parks” are parks that are dark enough at night to see lots of stars. That’s a very loose description, of course. The International Dark-Sky Association has more formal requirements for just how dark a place has to be to qualify. A 2016 study found that 99% of Americans don’t see a “natural” night sky because at least some of it is obscured by lights. There are now 77 parks around the world officially designated as “dark sky parks” — three of those in Virginia. Staunton River State Park in Halifax County got its designation in 2015; earlier this year James River State Park in Buckingham County and Rappahannock County Park joined the club. The good news: Douthat State Park and Natural Bridge State Park are in zones dark enough to qualify — although there’s lots of paperwork involved, and some technicalities. Dark sky parks aren’t completely dark, but its lights that are supposed to be shielded so they shine down where people are trying to walk — and not up into the sky to wash out the stars. Douthat and Natural Bridge have been interested in dark sky status; here’s hoping that comes to pass. Also note that virtually all of Highland County sits in a one of the darkest zones in the state. There’s been occasional talk of creating a state park there — dark sky status would be a natural if that ever happened. The advantage of a dark sky designation isn’t simply prestige; it’s an entryway into the niche market of “astro-tourism” for people who specifically seek out such places to take in the full glory of the night sky. As with more conventional tourism, it’s a form of economic development.
A greenway from Greenfield to Galax. This is a long-term request — more practical than asking for a pony for Christmas but not one that will happen right away. The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors first floated this idea last year. Both the Roanoke and New River valleys have extensive greenway systems that are being built out to become even more extensive. What would it take to connect the two? And then what would it take to connect them with the New River Valley Trail State Park, which runs from Pulaski to Galax? If you’re looking at the big picture — a 100-mile-plus trail from Galax to Greenfield in Botetourt County — about half of it is already done. We just need to fill in the gaps and pound in a greenway equivalent of a golden spike. This is an idea that would take decades to happen — just as the current greenway systems have taken decades — but it’s a goal worth keeping in mind and working toward. Now, if we could figure out a way to connect that to a dark sky park . . .
Bike helmets. Not for us, for all the people riding those new electric scooters around town. The instructions on the scooters clearly say helmets are required, but most people we’ve seen scooting around aren’t wearing any.
Come on, people. You know better than that.