Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 28, 2014

Weeks late and dollars short for Virginia schools as 2014 budget gets low score

— Weeks late and dollars short might well be the way that educators view the 2014 Virginia General Assembly budget.

It brings back memories of my own years in elementary school, when I first noticed that schools did not always have the same appearance. For instance, our little school in Abb’s Valley — and I admit we loved it — was not a picturesque facility. Just across the hill in Jenkinjones and on down in Anawalt, the schools were brick with more than one story. We had wooden and cinderblock buildings. They were spread across the large lot and the cafeteria was some 50 yards from the furthest classroom. Our bathrooms were air conditioned in both winter and summer and located apart from the classrooms. If that sounds like the little brown shack out back, then the picture is becoming clearer. Indoor plumbing was not a fixture in many rural schools until late into the 20th century. Our heat was not central, either. We cut kindling wood and shoveled coal into the stoves to keep warm during the winter. It was always amazing to drive up to Bluefield and see just how “fancy” many of the town students had it when school was in session.

After wrangling all through spring and now into summer, the legislators have essentially put together a financial package that leaves schools in yet another tight spot. In those good old days, we did not have a gym to play in. There was a decent playground with a metal sliding board and a swing set. Both were fun. Still, it was a little puzzling when we traveled to other places and noticed that many schools had gyms with bleachers and standard floors. I was almost ready for high school before we got a new school and even then we had what was termed a multi-purpose room that functioned as both a cafeteria and gymnasium. It was the first time we ever had what could be termed a physical education class. Little did we know that students all around us had enjoyed such luxuries for years. Guess you can’t miss what you never had.

We did not know much about politics back then and few realized that living out in the mountains did not equate into legislative muscle. Our roads were often the last to be plowed in the winter. Our electricity was reliable but when the power went out, it was the big residential areas that almost always got the first attention. Again, we were not usually aware of that. As naive as it might sound now, we believed that everyone was treated equally in the great state of Virginia. Living in coalfield communities, where few people ever got to town except on Saturdays, we just knew what we had and not much about how the other half was living.

So, on those rare occasions when our little family traveled out of town, it was unbelievable to see some of the schools between here and Washington. Some of them looked like colleges and I thought that probably those kids were so much more intelligent than we were that maybe they deserved much better schools. Surely, there was not a division or a discrepancy between the social classes — not in my state. I had no idea that some people did not love schools and were more interested in the money situation than the boys and girls in those classrooms. It was only after I got older and got out of the back yard that a different picture began to emerge.

Going back to the 1920s — and earlier — Virginia had already begun to pursue a policy that was not always favorable to advancing the public schools. Many of the major legislators, business people themselves, were acutely aware that schools were not a “money making” venture and so the educational systems had to make do with less funding than was really needed to advance the process. I am also sad to report that I had no idea that “black” schools, so called, were even worse off. For instance, it was not until I was in college that I learned that many black athletic teams often used equipment “donated” or cast off from other schools. Often, a more well to do “white” school, even some in this local area, would give shoulder pads or jerseys to their less fortunate neighbors. It was a symptom of a large problem that still takes a lot of the shine off the brilliance of many achievements in the Commonwealth.

And so we come down to the present day and the money is still not flowing with much force into the classrooms. We in Virginia, according to Robley Jones of the state education association, are “making do” with the same amount of money that we had five years ago — in 2009. Not many folks would enjoy trying to stretch a dollar for five years. Welcome to the Commonwealth, it seems. It is not so bad everywhere, of course. Virginia is the 10th wealthiest state in America but puts only the “37th most” into its educational payroll. Children come first — we hear a lot of that. Still, in my state, according to published figures, our kids get only a 39th-best per pupil funding in grades K-12. The taxpayers are not being unduly burdened, since in Virginia the rate of money going out of the paycheck and into the classrooms is only 46th, according to the latest released information.

Shucks — I guess those old kindling pieces were not the only things getting a close shave at our school.

Larry Hypes is a teacher at Tazewell High School and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

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