By MIKE WILLIAMS
Supporters of the construction of a new consolidated middle school filled the board room at the County Administration Building Monday night.
Nearly all the speakers not only voiced support for a new middle school, but primarily urged the Board of Supervisors to place the issue on the ballot in November.
Monday night’s first speaker, Keri Peterson – a librarian at Pulaski County High School – told supervisors she had addressed them three years ago about the need for a new consolidated middle school.
“I said then to take care of the issue and that we would either pay now or pay more later,” said Peterson. She said the proposed price three years ago of $45 million would today cost $46.4 million. “Every year there is a delay the cost is passed down to the taxpayers,” she added.
Peterson asked the board to allow citizens to vote on the issue.
She said Pulaski County has a history of deciding major issues effecting citizens through referendums. She said citizens were allowed to vote to decide whether the county and its two towns would consolidate, how to finance and where a new courthouse would be built, and the high school consolidation.
“Our grandparents and great-grandparents made the sacrifices necessary to make sure their children – including many of us in this room – were schooled in buildings adequate to the challenge facing students of their time. It is past time for this generation of voters to decide whether or not to do the same for Pulaski County’s most valuable asset – our children,” Peterson said.
Lezley Wilson, President of the Pulaski County Education Association – saying she was speaking as a private citizen – said she and the board of supervisors are in agreement on a lot of things.
“The General Assembly’s 12.9 percent decrease in per-pupil funding since 2009 is shameful. The retraction of Virginia Lottery funds targeted for state school capital improvements is a welch on a promise – pure and simple,” Wilson said.
“I agree with you that Richmond is not keeping up with its fair share, and this has left localities like Pulaski County with responsibilities to step up. We also agree something has to be done with our middle schools. They are ugly, dismal, unhealthy and in some areas unsafe. They are from a time gone by that does not reflect the aesthetic and technology capable requirements for optimal success of our students,” she continued.
“As a voter and citizen, I ask you to take a bold step. We have patched and compromised and muddled through and hoped that it would be good enough. But good enough is not good enough. It is not good enough to entertain shifting student populations without an understanding of current operations, and the intended or unintended consequences of such a plan. It is not good enough to consider renovation at an estimated 87 percent of the cost of new construction when it exceeds the state guidelines of 50 percent,” Wilson continued.
“I’ve heard many times home buyers and businesses look at schools as indicators of the potential and desirability of a location when making decisions to buy or re-locate. A new combined middle school will be a catalyst to economic growth that we look forward to in Pulaski County.
“Build it and they will come. As a taxpayer I support increasing tax revenue to finance construction of a new combined middle school, and I also believe my colleagues, neighbors, friends and fellow citizens will support that as well,” Wilson concluded.
A former Dublin Middle School student told the supervisors she could recall days when “teachers would tell us to bring our winter coats or blankets” to school because it was that cold. And those times, she said, in the summer when we got to go to the computer lab because that’s the only room with air conditioning.
“Can you imagine walking in the hallway with the lights off just because if you turned the lights on it got even hotter. There’s no air conditioning in the gym. I can’t tell you how horrible that is,” she continued.
Addison Ainsley told the board he and his family moved here from Florida 11 years ago when he went to work for TMD Friction.
“I had the opportunity to move anywhere, but chose Pulaski County. Both of our kids at the time went to Dublin Elementary. When they went to Dublin Middle School we were surprised. If we had done our homework or if they had been going to middle school when we came up here, we would probably have gone to Montgomery County to live. It was that shocking,” he told the board.
Ainsley said he wants to be proud of the school system. “I think that’s the one black eye we have – the middle schools. In order to feel pride in our schools it will take the building of a consolidated middle school.”
Another speaker, a middle school teacher, said students are missing out because of the limitations in their classrooms.
“I cannot give a technology based lesson in my room because I have only two electrical outlets – one at the back of the room for a fan and an extension cord for my computer. The one at the front of my room is for a smart board and a projector. Students are missing out on an opportunity to do technology based education in mathematics,” she said.
She continued that middle school students in Pulaski County don’t have access to the same technology and labs that students in Montgomery County have.
“Our children – my child – are suffering,” she said. “That’s not right and it’s not right our children look at their school and feel like we don’t care about them because our schools are not well-maintained and they’re not being offered the things that students in other schools systems are.
“I respectfully ask that you just put it on the ballot. I’m not asking you to fix it, not asking you to fund it. I’m just asking YOU to give us an opportunity to vote and let our voices be heard.”
Annie Whitaker told the supervisors the community is changing.
“When I moved here 10 years ago I was the only person on my street with a child. In the last two years, there are six new children on my street, and five more are planning to move in. The community is changing and you need to change with them,” Whitaker said.
Donna Travis, a realtor, said she tries to encourage her clients to move to Pulaski County.
“I’m always up against the school issue,” she said. “Sometimes I just can’t get people to look at houses here, and I hate that.”
Travis said a couple weeks ago she was showing houses to someone from Florida who was considering employment with a local corporation in the county.
“He said he wanted to look at homes in Blacksburg and Christiansburg. I asked if I could show him homes in Pulaski County, and he said someone had told him our schools weren’t great. He said, ‘I have two fifth graders getting ready for middle school and I heard your middle schools are old.’ And that was it,” Travis said.
“I wasn’t able to show him a single half-million dollar home in Pulaski County, and instead was showing him homes in Blacksburg. Our enrollment is going down, but if we don’t build a new middle school then people are not going to come. I can tell them till I’m blue in the face, but they just won’t do it. Please just let the people decide,” she added.
Another speaker, from the Robinson Tract area, said he was disturbed to read recently that Pulaski County is one of five counties in Southwest Virginia with a declining population since 2010.
“The enrollment of students is declining also. This is not good,” he said.
“Each year we bring up new schools. We hear about the condition our schools are in. Yes, some are old, but a lot of people in Pulaski County have homes older than these schools are. They’d like to have a new home, but can’t afford it either. I think a lot of problems we face in the middle schools are caused by not having maintenance done on them. I blame our school board for this. From what I have seen, the school board is against having anything done to refurbish our schools. Even turned down air conditioning we wanted to put in the schools. The people of this county can’t afford the tax rates you want to put on them,” he continued.
E.W. Harless of Dublin said he agrees students need a new middle school, but he is concerned about how to go about it. He advocates building the school next to the high school and letting both schools use the same athletic complex.
Harless said he knows the desired location for the middle school, and “in order to get facilities and everything to it it’s going to cost a fortune.”
Harless added that if a new school is built, “we’ll want everyone to suffer a little bit” to pay for it, including farmers on the board of supervisors, and he said they need to remember that when time comes to consider land use tax rates.
Terri Shelor said there had been comments about moving eighth grade students to the high school and sixth graders to elementary schools.
“Middle school is a pretty tumultuous time of life – not the time of life to be shoved in with high school or elementary school students. It’s a very important time in the students’ lives. They need to be taken care of as middle school students. They need to have their needs addressed in middle school and not sloughed off to high school or elementary school,” she said.
Shelor also said educators and the school board should make decisions on how money should be spent for school children.
“Finally, as a professor at Radford University, I’ve seen what our children are up against. Our students are competing against students from Northern Virginia who have computers in their classrooms and know how to use smart boards. They had to show me how to use them. They’ve used them since kindergarten. Our students have to use smart boards that are wheeled into the classroom that don’t even work half the time,” she said, adding she fears our students won’t be able to compete with others if they don’t have the best schools available.
James McClanahan asked “what if” the middle school issue is put to a referendum, and it is defeated?
Supervisors Chairman Andy McCready said State Law says a referendum that is defeated cannot go back on the ballot for four years.
Supervisor Joe Guthrie said, however, that would not prohibit the Board of Supervisors from voting whether or not to raise taxes for a school.
McCready said the supervisors await final site and cost information from the school board, which they expect in a month to six weeks.
“The Board of Supervisors will take a look at the information in June after we get it from the School Board in late May,” McCready said.
According to the State Board of Elections website, Aug. 18 at 5 p.m. is the deadline for a local circuit court to order a referendum / bond issue to be held in conjunction with the November General Election so it can be placed on the ballot.