Local schools join rural coalition

By Alison Murtagh 

 All three school systems in the Rockbridge area have joined the Small and Rural School Coalition, a rapidly expanding group that originated in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia two years ago. 

Suffering enrollment declines, school systems in the southwestern part of the state organized the Coalfield Coalition, as it was originally called, in an effort to flex their political muscle.  

On Jan. 9, the Rockbridge County School Board unanimously approved joining the group. Buena Vista and Lexington are also listed as members of the coalition. 

Keith Perrigan, former school superintendent of Norton city schools and current superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools, has been a leading figure in the group from the beginning. In 2016, he came back from summer vacation to find a huge drop in enrollment throughout the Norton City School System. 

“I called my neighbor in Wise County and sure enough they had [the same problem],” Perrigan said. “I called the folks in Dickinson – same story, Lee County – same story.” 

Several coal mines closed down the previous spring, and families moved out of the area. As a result, enrollment in public schools began to dwindle.  

State school funding, which is more than half of the budgets in those areas, is set on a per-pupil basis. Since much of the cost of education remains the same even as enrollment drops – buses cover the same area, teachers still must be paid – the formula can hurt shrinking school systems. 

Perrigan and other superintendents in Southwest Virginia rallied together to have a stronger voice with state representatives. They asked the legislature to reinstate a line item which was removed in 2009 that required the state to give additional money to school systems with less than 10,000 students and that lost 10 percent of enrollment over the course of 10 years.  

Students at Maury River Middle School play basketball. Photo by Doug Cumming.

While the exact line item was not added back, school systems did receive some state funding for every student lost in their school systems. This success led to a bigger movement. 

“We decided that it made sense for us to expand because we felt like finally, our voice was really being heard in Richmond,” Perrigan said.   

The Coalfield Coalition expanded and became the Small and Rural Schools Coalition. 

In December, members of the new coalition extended an invitation to school systems throughout the state to gather and discuss challenges and solutions to problems in their rural school districts.   

The 71 school divisions that have joined represent more than half of Virginia’s 132 school districts.  

Unfortunately, Perrigan said, the total enrollment of those 71 districts can’t compare to even one or two of the school divisions in Northern Virginia. According to the Virginia Department of Education, in the fall of 2017, Fairfax County had a total enrollment of 188,591 students, while all three Rockbridge area school systems had a combined total enrollment of 4,295 students.    

“But we do have a stronger voice now,” Perrigan said.  

A steering committee was created in January consisting of a superintendent from each of the eight regions involved in the coalition. Fluvanna County Public Schools Superintendent Charles Winkler is on the steering committee representing Region Five, which includes Rockbridge County.  

“We all face similar problems or issues within education,” Winkler said. “First and foremost, addressing the teacher shortage and retaining and attaining quality teachers. We are all faced with funding deficits.” 

Other problems include the need for school construction, the improvement of at risk-youth programs, and an increase in teacher pay, he said.  

The local funding of schools, in contrast to state funding, is largely based on the property taxes in the district. So, a large district that receives a lot of money from property taxes can invest more in the school systems than a smaller district. 

“If you look across the commonwealth, there are over 70 school divisions that are considered rural, and a tax of one penny in those divisions is not worth anywhere near what it’s worth in some of the northern divisions,” Winkler said.   

Winkler said the goal of the coalition is for the schools to have a larger voice, not to penalize larger school districts. 

Rockbridge County’s Superintendent Phillip Thompson said he hopes to see results. 

“We just want to be able to have a voice that is heard as loudly as some of those more urban, larger school divisions,” he said. “They have a pretty large voice. They have a lot of resources that individually, our school divisions don’t necessarily have.”  

Thompson said more state funds could be put towards teacher recruitment, school construction, and “unfunded mandates,” new directives from the state that cost money to implement but don’t include state funds. 

For example, Thompson said the General Assembly passed a bill last year mandating that every school division had a dyslexia specialist. While Rockbridge County schools had already met the requirement, Thompson said other school divisions might need to come up with additional funding.   

“All school divisions have tight budgets, so when we get unfunded mandates that we are not necessarily expecting, we have to find a way to make that happen,” Thompson said. “With no more funding, it’s extremely difficult sometimes.”