2013-05-08 / Front Page

School system shifting resources into less affluent county areas

By Jim McConnell

Enon Elementary’s first-graders sang “Jeepers Creepers,” originally recorded in 1938, during the school’s 75th birthday celebration. Enon Elementary’s first-graders sang “Jeepers Creepers,” originally recorded in 1938, during the school’s 75th birthday celebration. The county’s public school division expects to spend more than $230 million over the next seven years to replace or renovate 10 of its oldest buildings, a plan closely aligned with the county’s broader goals of focusing on revitalization rather than new development.

That’s a significant departure from the approach to capital improvements Chesterfield County Public Schools has taken since the mid-1990s and it reflects an effort to bring older, deteriorating schools in less affluent county regions up to par – or parity – with the state-of-the-art schools in wealthier zones.

It’s also long overdue, according to the head of the local teachers union.

“There’s definitely an equity piece to this discussion; you can see that by just walking into school buildings in different parts of the county,” said Frank Cardella, president of the Chesterfield Education Association.

“The key has always been: Is there community support? Folks in the eastern part of the county haven’t been vocal enough. They haven’t come out and demanded it. They haven’t said, ‘Hey, it’s our turn.’

“Political capital follows economic capital,” Cardella acknowledged. “If the majority of the money and squeaky wheels are in the west end of the county, that’s where new facilities are going to be built.”

Statistics published in the comprehensive plan indicate that Chesterfield’s population increased by 310 percent between 1970 and 2010. Most of that growth occurred during the 1990s and early 2000s as numerous developments sprang up in the western half of the county.

In response, CCPS focused its capital spending on the construction of new schools to relieve overcrowding and allocated remaining funds toward its most pressing maintenance projects.

With a few exceptions, Chesterfield’s leaders either were unable or unwilling to commit similar resources to school infrastructure in many older, established neighborhoods in the eastern half of the county.

The result was a disparity in public facilities that, according to the comprehensive plan, “contributed to declining neighborhood and commercial areas and a population requiring increased public services.”

“The resulting diminishing tax base in these areas typically has not supported the cost of needed public services,” the plan observed.

By renovating or replacing older schools, the county hopes to use the facilities as a magnet to draw both commercial and residential development back into those older communities.

“People look to schools when they’re deciding where they want to live and where they want to locate their business,” said Carrie Coyner, the Bermuda District’s School Board representative and an alumnus of Enon Elementary, which last week celebrated its 75th birthday.

“What’s happening inside those buildings is incredible,” she added. “Unfortunately, when somebody drives by and sees the exterior of the school, they get a different impression.”

The average age of Chesterfield’s elementary schools is 40 years old. The average age of the seven elementary schools listed in the school division’s 2014-18 Capital Improvement Plan is 62.

A study that was performed 18 months ago identified Beulah Elementary (built in 1947) as the local school most in need of a major overhaul. CCPS has budgeted $27 million for the project and $25.9 million for Providence Middle (built in 1968), both of which are projected to be completed in 2017.

Revitalization efforts at Matoaca Elementary (built in 1937), Enon Elementary (built in 1938) and Manchester Middle (built in 1967) are expected to begin in July 2014 at a combined cost of $97.5 million.

Ettrick Elementary (built in 1967) is in line for a $16.9 million face-lift that could begin as early as July 2015.

Work at three other elementary schools – Harrowgate (built in 1959), Crestwood (built in 1962) and Reams (built in 1968) – is expected to commence in July 2016. A total of $52.1 million has been budgeted for the three projects.

CCPS spokesman Tim Bullis pointed out that those figures are estimates. He also noted that the county and the school division will conduct a project-by-project analysis to determine whether it’s more feasible to renovate or rebuild with the money that has been allocated.

With Chesterfield’s student population projected to remain mostly flat until 2020, and the cost of borrowing money as low as it’s ever been, School Board Chairman David Wyman believes that “this is a very good time to be having the discussion” about the role schools can play in revitalizing older neighborhoods.

Wyman doesn’t think it will be difficult to convince residents in the western part of the county to support the millions in spending necessary to complete major capital improvement projects at schools closer to the Route 1 corridor.

“If you allow communities to have facilities that are clearly below Chesterfield standards, home values will continue to drop,” he said. “That impacts the county’s coffers and it’s not in anybody’s interests for that to happen.”

While calling the comprehensive plan “very important in trying to normalize county facilities,” Cardella cautioned the school division against allowing the objectives of revitalization to negatively impact what happens in classrooms.

“It has to be a full commitment,” said Cardella, who pointed out that Chesterfield “gets good results” despite ranking 127th out of 134 Virginia localities in per-pupil spending. “Every new building becomes an old building eventually. We need to have a plan for what we’re doing inside these buildings.”

Jennifer James moved to eastern Chesterfield County several years ago specifically because of its small-town feel and the quality of its schools. One of her children attended Enon Elementary through the fifth grade and is now enrolled at Elizabeth Davis Middle; her youngest is in second grade at Enon.

James said during Enon’s 75th birthday celebration that she supports the county’s initiative to revitalize older school buildings, but was “on the fence” about whether the spending would adversely affect other areas.

“If a new building comes with the technology and everything these kids are currently receiving, that’s great,” she said. “If it takes away from educational resources, I wouldn’t support that.”

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