Opinion: Virginia must repair its crumbling public school buildings

In “Simple Justice,” Richard Kluger’s remarkable 1975 history of “Brown v. Board of Education,” there’s a chapter called “The Pride of Virginia.” It’s painful to read.

It talks about respected Richmond attorney Archibald Gerard Robertson and Virginia Attorney General J. Lindsay Almond inspecting a Black segregated public school in Prince Edward County in 1951.

Robertson had come upon one of the privies and invited Almond to take a look. “If you ever run for governor,” Robertson said to Almond, “I may use this against you.”

The two men laughed, according to this account, but there was little humor to be found in the conditions of rural Virginia public education at that time, most particularly in the facilities provided to Black students.

But there was a second difficult-to-accept truth: While white public school students generally fared better by the commonwealth and its local governments, they often didn’t fare that much better. Support for public education in rural Virginia has long been constrained by political ambivalence.

That thought came home last week while touring King and Queen County’s Elementary School. As the crow flies, King and Queen is really not that far removed from the heavily developed Peninsula. You just get up on Rt. 33 to West Point, hang a left turn at Shackleford’s and the school sits a few miles on the right.

But from the looks of the school, it may as well be on the far side of the moon. It was built in 1937 and has been constantly amended — the phrase “baling wire” jumps to mind — to accommodate shifting local demands and changing technology.

There are no privies at this school and the bathrooms are as clean as they could be. But if you’d like to wander through an 80-year-old, Depression-era public building, these facilities make for a workable entry point.

There is a computer room, however. Only, when hard rains arrive, you can find yourself in ankle-deep in water, the county superintendent said. Behind the walls, in places untouched over the years, do local officials fear the presence of asbestos? Sure.

You would like to think that King and Queen, a rural county that stretches about 80 miles above the mouth of the Mattaponi River — might be a special case.

But it’s not. All across Virginia — rural and urban — you can find school buildings more than 100 years old with rundown roofs, asbestos problems or rodents.

Elected people, official school people and people in general have been out beating the drum on dilapidated school facilities for some years now, but seeing the commonwealth presently flush with resources — an astounding $2 billion state surplus and billions more in federally-supplied, COVID-related emergency funding — has hopes up.

So the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia has organized a “Crumbling Schools Tour” and the King and Queen Elementary School was first on the list. Northampton County will display conditions at Kiptopeke Elementary School on July 29.

What is the coalition saying exactly?

That more than half of Virginia’s schools were built a half century ago and roughly 28% were built before World War II.

That, adjusted for inflation, state per-pupil funding is down 8% since the 2007-2008 recession, leaving Virginia 32nd across the nation in per pupil funding nationally.

That dramatic disparities in funding exist across Virginia and that statewide average in per pupil spending trail the national average by about $1,800 per student.

That rural localities have increased their share of education funding by nearly 4%, while the state has decreased its funding by nearly 4.5%.

The coalition calls this “Virginia’s Moonshot Moment to Modernize Schools” and it may be.

Still, the competition for all this public dough has rapidly intensified. There are pension funds to secure, a state rainy day fund to bolster and lengthening lines of other interests, all with their hands out and often justifiably.

But this particular object of neglect — Virginia’s public school buildings — has a long, long history and a weary record of neglect to go with it. The Virginia Association of Counties has been particularly valiant in its pursuit of action, arguing that every year this problem persists makes the situation worse.

Here’s the good news: Sitting over there in King and Queen with the people of that school system, was heart-lifting and inspiring. That’s their school — in some instances, the one the ancestors attended — and they love it.

Fix these schools and we will have, quite literally, helped them to tend to the future.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.