Justin Pope: This is the way forward for Prince Edward schools

Published 12:18 am Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Prince Edward Board of Supervisors has unanimously endorsed plans to renovate the county’s elementary school. Here’s what I’d encourage my fellow county residents to keep in mind about this project – and what happens next.

First, our County leadership deserves praise for moving forward on these urgent needs instead of kicking the can.

We’ve all heard stories about the leaking roofs, decrepit fields and playgrounds, failing traffic system, and outdated building structures. These aren’t just inconveniences, they are safety and learning impediments for our children. The plan doesn’t solve everything. But it puts us on track to an elementary school that is safe and functional. It will also help solve the school pick-up and drop-off snarls that devour the mornings and afternoons of hundreds of County families. This is an enormous “tax” on already time-pressed parents – in time, as well as gas costs from idling. 

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Most importantly, school buildings will finally start to convey to students, teachers, and prospective businesses and families thinking of moving to Prince Edward that this is a community where education matters. 

Appearances count, and right now, neither the substance nor appearance of our school buildings is good enough. Every time I drive my daughters past schools in neighboring counties, they ask why their buildings look so much better than ours. The prospective families and businesses we need, for economic growth and our tax base, ask the same question. It’s just one reason you should care about our schools even if you don’t have children or grandchildren in the system.

Running at problems

Leadership means running at problems so future generations will have more capacity to face the challenges of their day. Whatever the future holds, there’s zero possibility our children and grandchildren will find themselves saying “I’m glad we’re still throwing money at broken school buildings. I’m glad we postponed dealing with these problems. I’m glad we didn’t make it a priority to have a school that will help us retain teachers and young families in our community.” 

What’s next? The County will move forward to apply for a generous 20-percent match from the Commonwealth. But while the state is helpful with one hand, it continues to treat Prince Edward deeply unfairly with the other. 

The General Assembly has allowed at least 11 localities in Virginia to decide for themselves, via referendum, if they want to help pay for school investments with a small sales tax increase, rather than having the burden fall entirely on County residents through the real estate taxes. 

For reasons that are hard to understand, let along explain to our children, the General Assembly continues to deny Prince Edward residents the right to put this question to County voters. Shouldn’t we be allowed to decide for ourselves — here, locally — whether to use this tool to protect our real estate tax rates? Why should Richmond decide that for us – especially when it’s let other Virginia localities do so? 

Prince Edward needs local control

So we must continue to lobby the General Assembly to grant us that same local control the residents of other localities enjoy. And if it does, we have to embrace that opportunity. Additional sales tax revenue to help with school renovations will help us protect other County services, limit real estate tax rates, and finally help us get started on urgent repairs also needed in the middle and high schools – both also 50 years old.

Beyond that, the responsibility to help our schools flourish lies with all of us.

Absenteeism is a huge problem nationally, and, as last week’s SOL results show, likely the hardest challenge our local schools face now. Our school leaders must treat it that way – but it’s also on parents, businesses, churches, local leaders – all of us – to solve it. 

Our school superintendent needs to hit the hustings; speaking to any community group or public meeting she can about both the achievements AND the challenges the district is facing, enlisting help. 

Our School Board meetings need more attendees, more candidates for office, and more challenging questions that sharpen priorities and push accountability. And lastly, every citizen of Prince Edward should subscribe to this newspaper, to help pay for journalists to cover the schools and provide journalistic accountability, too.

There’s a lazy, reflexive social media habit among some in our community to declare our public schools hopeless. In fact, the latest SOL results show several positive trends. Prince Edward Elementary was recently among just 93 schools in all of Virginia to receive the state’s continuous improvement award, reflecting improvement over three years. Nobody who bothered to read about what that award entailed could credibly claim our schools are hopeless. They have challenges. But they are not hopeless, and only ever will be if we give up on them. We all have a role to play in whether they flourish.

We all wish we’d gotten here sooner. But the Board of Supervisors and County Executive Doug Stanley are showing leadership, with a well-planned commitment to a renovated elementary school. Let’s now take the other steps together and see how much farther forward we can move.

Justin Pope is the parent of two PECPS students. He can be reached at jnn_pope97@yahoo.com