By Randy Arrington
LURAY, July 13 — Showing their age and expected wear and tear over multiple decades, some of the floor and ceiling tiles in Luray Elementary School still remain from its original construction — which dates back to when schools were still segregated in Page County.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Page County was forced to build a new school for black children (now the Central Office) before they could begin construction for a new elementary school for white children (now LES). The process began in 1959 and LES was completed in 1961.
“This is a well-maintained building, but because of its age it takes a lot to maintain and at some point it will reach a breaking point,” Page County Public Schools Superintendent Antonia Fox told a group of regional and statewide officials gathered in the LES library on Tuesday.
About 20 officials from school districts in the region and a host of statewide organizations made Luray their second of eight stops across Virginia as part of the “Crumbling Schools Tour” that began June 22 and runs through July 29.
“The tour is part of a statewide initiative that will draw attention to the deteriorating condition of public-school facilities in every region of the Commonwealth,” reads a press release announcing the tour in June. “Although the condition of school facilities in the Commonwealth of Virginia is well documented, the Crumbling Schools Tour will allow decision makers to have a first-hand account of the conditions our students and staff endure on a daily basis. Unfortunately, rural and high poverty areas have more than their fare share of school infrastructure needs.”
The statewide tour is being hosted by the following groups: Virginia’s Coalition of Small Rural Schools (COSARS), Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS), Virginia School Board Association (VSBA), Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), Virginia Municipal League (VML), Virginia First Cities (VFC) and Fund Our Schools.
“The goal of these tours is not to call out or cast blame, but to bring awareness to the difference in what is, compared to what could be,” the press release states. “The issue cannot be solved by localities alone. This issue cannot be solved by the Commonwealth alone. The only real solution, to this ever-growing problem, is to combine federal, state and local resources to ensure that a student’s zip code is not a predictor of the quality of the education they receive.”
During Tuesday’s one-hour tour through Luray Elementary, the group was taken into the gymnasium, which was renovated in the early 1990s. While the lack of bleachers is immediately noticeable, the lack of air conditioning becomes quickly apparent on a 90-plus-degree day. Assistant Principal Tommy Pitts says the only way to cool things down is by using big box fans or by simply opening the door. The same is true of the cafeteria.
“Sometimes we’ll have two gym classes going on in here with 60 kids or more,” Pitts told the group, which collectively began to wipe their brows. “During the warmer weather, we definitely see students taking more trips to the nurse.”
The group was also shown issues with air conditioning units in several classrooms — some “15 years past due” for replacement — as well as doors that won’t open properly, outdated water fountains, and an inadequate science lab. Cheaper window units have taken the place of large, more expensive, elevated AC units in some classes (after they stopped working), while radiators supply the heat. Heating, plumbing and electrical systems have become a hodge-podge mix in many cases, as tight budgets often dictate multiple repairs rather than replacement.
“Its’ not uncommon that a teacher comes in to make copies and the room next door loses power,” Pitts told the group. He also noted that the older building has fewer electrical outlets.
“When do you say when?” PCPS Supervisor of Facilities and Maintenance Timmy Williams said. “You can keep patching, but there is a breaking point where it’s no longer feasible.”
“And am I correct that this is not even your worst building?” asked an employee of Roanoke-based Branch Builds, which specializes in education construction and sponsored the day’s event.
“That is correct,” Williams responded.
While the county did commit to building two new high schools that opened in 2009, it had been a half century since any school construction had taken place in Page prior to that. The new high schools are the only schools in the county with hot water in the bathrooms; the older schools were planned without hot water options. The oldest school building, Shenandoah Elementary, dates back to 1928. A few others were built in the 1930s. According to Williams, those buildings have more issues and concerns than LES.
The “Crumbling Schools Tour” was headed to Waynesboro on Tuesday afternoon, after the morning tour in Luray. The statewide initiative kicked off June 22 in King and Queen County and visited Radford High School on Wednesday. The remaining schedule is as follows:
• Thursday, July 22 — New Castle / McCleary Elementary and Craig County High School, and South Boston / Halifax County High School
• Tuesday, July 27 — Petersburg / Westview Early Childhood Center
• Thursday, July 29 — Cape Charles / Kiptopeke Elementary
A representative of the Coalition of Small Rural Schools stated on Tuesday that another purpose of the tours is “having a collective voice to be heard at the legislative level.” The Coalition alone has the support of more than 70 of the 132 school districts in Virginia. Along with VACo, VML and VSBA, the initiative carries some heavy lobby power in Richmond.
“It’s obvious that localities can not do this on their own,” said Jeremy Bennett, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties. “That’s why we want to see additional flexibility in state and federal support.”
Representatives for U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D) and Virginia Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26th) were in attendance at Tuesday’s tour in Luray, along with County Administrator Amity Moler, supervisors chairman Morgan Phenix and Page County School Board member Duane Painter (Dist. 4).