SWVA Governor’s School will move to NRCC campus

governor schoolBy WILLIAM PAINE

The Patriot

This past Wednesday, the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School Board met at New River Community College’s Godbey Hall to determine where classes would be held for the upcoming fall semester.

The room selected for the meeting was filled to capacity as Gov school teachers, alumni and current students at the SWVA Governor’s School came to have their say regarding the fate of the school.


Pulaski County Public Schools has provided a home for the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School since its inception 33 years ago, but this changed in October 2022, as Gov school staff were notified that they were to vacate the building as of June 30 this year.

Since then, the SWVA Governor’s School Board has been touring the campuses of Radford University, New River Community College and Wytheville Community College to determine where the classes were to be held in the fall semester.


Board members were also given the option of having a split campus, in which classes could be held at two of the campuses on different days of the week. This option would include a “distance learning” aspect, with  students taking some of their classes online.


Several members of the SWVA Governor’s School staff were present at the meeting and Megan Arnold, the SWVA Gov School counselor, read a statement on behalf of the teachers at the school.


“It’s our belief that moving the SWVA Gov School to Radford University would be the best choice for the long term, but just as with the split model, it would take more time than we currently have to be able to figure that out,” said Arnold. “We believe that moving the program to NRCC would require the smallest change in the program. New River Community College has been extremely welcoming and enthusiastic to these potential changes and our current relationship with New River would allow us to keep our program intact. The travel difference would be negligible for all of our students.”


SWVA Gov School chemistry teacher Jared Brown noted that incorporating a split campus would result in significantly less lab time for students. SWVA Gov School Math teacher Greg Riffe agreed, saying that neither a split campus nor online learning would serve the students well.


Many current Gov School students from several surrounding counties took the opportunity to speak at Wednesday’s meeting.


“Throughout my entire education, I have never been surrounded by teachers as dedicated to their jobs as the governor school teachers,” said Jordan Lucas, an 11th grader from Giles County. “Teachers are genuinely excited and interested in the questions of their students. These are teachers who will email us back at 10:30 at night to help us with our science fair project. The only way to maintain this community is by keeping the teachers and students all together in one facility.”


Other students spoke about how they wouldn’t have the opportunity to take such high level courses if it weren’t for the Governor’s School. Another student spoke about being bullied at her school and how she found her peer group at the Gov School.


Some of the speakers referred to a student survey that they’d taken earlier in the week. More than 70 percent of those students who took the survey said they would not attend Gov School if it were to be made virtual, with similar numbers expressing their preference for in-person learning. The survey also made clear that students preferred a single location for the Gov School campus.


Several SWVA Gov School alumni, as well as those who had children who attended Gov School, also spoke at the meeting. All expressed a great appreciation for the advanced educational opportunities offered by the gov school with some remarking that dual enrollment classes, while useful, were nowhere near the equivalent of Gov School course work.


More than two dozen individuals spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, and – except for Grayson County School Superintendent Kelly Woolwine – all  voiced their opposition to both a split campus and distance learning.


“We haven’t had a student attend the governor school in at least 20 years,” said Woolwine. “If you put yourself in our shoes and with our students, we’d like to have the same opportunity. Please look at the possibility of making a split in the future.”


Notably, though several individuals from Wythe County spoke at the meeting, none suggested moving the campus to Wytheville Community College.


Many of the alumni in attendance came at the prompting of Adam Farris, owner of Iron Heart Winery and SWVA Gov School graduate. Farris, who has been a strong advocate for keeping the SWVA Gov School in a single location, expressed his dismay regarding the lack of planning involved in this move.


“My background is in business and when I asked folks if there was a complete business case built on the move, or the adjustments to this school, the answer was a resounding ‘no,’” said Farris. “There were no time studies done on transportation from site A to site B. The differences between split models or what the financial implications might be or what the student’s educational environment might be in terms of the differences. So, I wasn’t able to gather an all-encompassing overview of what the potential benefit or drawbacks might be.”


After all who wanted to speak had their say, SWVA Gov School Chairwoman Jenny Riffe asked if anyone on the board had questions. Linwood Hudson, who represents Montgomery County, asked about the costs of moving to a new campus. While no actual figures were discussed, representatives from Radford University, Wytheville Community College and NRCC all stated that the costs would be minimal and that major expense would involve equipping their respective labs for the next semester.


Hudson then made the motion to move the SWVA Governor’s School to the New River Community College campus. Brett Sexton of Galax City seconded the motion. The board then passed the motion by a vote of 7-2 with Paul Grinstead of Smyth County and Jennifer Sowers of Carroll County voting against.


Next came the question of which locality would act as the Fiscal Agent for the SWVA Governor’s School, as Pulaski County Public Schools would no longer take on this responsibility.


“Radford City Public Schools appreciates the opportunity to be able to be considered as the fiscal agent,” said Radford City School Superintendent Robert Graham. “We have a parttime finance coordinator who works 22 and a half hours and we’d like to move her up to 32 and a half hours with the support of the SWVA Gov Schools. We’re very, very small.”


When asked how much “support” Radford City Schools would need to take over the task of Financial Manager for the SWVA Gov School, Graham said about $12,000. With that, the board voted to transfer SWVA Gov School Fiscal Management duties from PCPS to Radford City Schools. Paul Grinstead of Smyth County was the only vote against this move.


“Even though we only have a few students who attend here, our dedication is to all 100 plus students in our region who come here,” said Graham. “We see the benefit of supporting everybody, so that all of our gifted students have this opportunity to have some of the best education possible.”


When asked why it was important to relinquish responsibility of acting as Fiscal Manager for the SWVA Gov School, Pulaski County Public School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers said, “Mr. (Chris) Stafford has been Fiscal Agent for the Gov School for 15 years. He is retiring and it just seemed like a good time for another division to step in and assist with providing that service.”


“At no cost,” added Stafford.


“Pulaski County has been doing it for 30 years at no additional cost to the Governor’s School and it is very time consuming,” Siers continued. “There are a number of state reports that have to be done. All the invoices to the Governor’s School have to be processed.”


PCPS board member Timmy Hurst asked, “Is it fair to the taxpayers of Pulaski County for 30 years to pay for the cost of the Governor’s School”?


These cost savings to the taxpayer will presumably be made clear the next time the school board presents its budget to the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors.


When asked about the fate of the Northwood Elementary School building, the current home of the SWVA Governor’s School, Hurst responded, “We haven’t made a decision about that.”


After the meeting, Chairwoman of the SWVA Governor’s School Board Jenny Riffe expressed her optimism about the new location.


“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for our students. We’ve had a 30-year history with New River Community College, and we will be able to continue that relationship. Picking up our program and moving it as is, maintains the program’s consistency. So, we’re not losing everything that we’ve grown in the past 30 years.”


Peter Anderson, NRCC’s Vice President for instruction and student services had this to say, “We’re excited to continue and strengthen our partnerships with the Governor’s School. So, as many people have said, it’s all about the students.”


Rebecca Phillips, SWVA Governor’s School Director notified the board of an upcoming schedule change related to the move.


“In anticipation of our move and the fact that we have over 30 years’ worth of items that we need to find a new home for, I am proposing that we modify our plans here so that we would shift our exams to May 5th, 8th and 9th instead of the 15th through the 17th of May. Also, we will have our award ceremony on May 10, instead of May 18, as planned. This is just to allow us a little additional time when our team of employees pack up their labs and all their materials.”