By Peter Rathmell
The phrase “location, location, location” often comes up in real estate, but in Rockbridge County, its significance extends far beyond selling houses.
According to the Virginia Education Association, Rockbridge County ranks 81st out of 124 school districts in Virginia for teacher salary. Location, then, applies directly to convincing teachers that Rockbridge County is the right place to call home.
“If you’re an outdoors type of person this is a beautiful place to come live,” said County School Superintendent Jack Donald when talking about what brings teachers to Rockbridge. “If you like the mountains, if you like rivers, the type of sporting ideas that come with that.”
Rockbridge County’s inability to offer competitive pay is not new, Donald says.
“We have been for many years among the lower paid school divisions in America,” he said. “Our cost of living is less, we don’t have the same types of issues that bigger schools have — and there is certainly truth to that — our class sizes are small, and there is truth in that.”
Donald, however, believes that the county’s cost of living is not as low as it seems. In a school board meeting Jan. 12, he made a presentation that illustrated how the cost of living in the county is actually above the surrounding school districts, according to data compiled by Sperling’s Best Places.
“It does show that there is not a huge differential; it nonetheless shows that there is a differential. We are a little bit more expensive place to live than many of the surrounding localities,” said Donald.
For the teachers themselves, though, the lower pay has never been much of an issue.
Molly Marshall is a third-year agriculture teacher at Maury River Middle School. She is a native to the area, and she says that the lower salary was never a factor when she chose to work at Rockbridge County Schools. Instead, she prioritized location.
“I grew up in Rockbridge County so it was nice to kind of be at home,” she said.
Marshall was also impressed by the administration’s leadership and how well maintained the district’s facilities are.
“I knew that I could have gotten paid more at Botetourt,” said Marshall. “But for me, that support was way more important than just the salary.”
With agriculture not being a required subject in most school districts, how the administration treated her was crucial in her decision to cross county lines.
“[It] feels you could just go to them and their door is always open,” she said. The first time she met Donald, he was leading seminars and having classes with the new teachers.
“I know how he is and it is more like family here,” she said.
Along with the comfortable atmosphere came better, more updated facilities. According to Donald, Rockbridge County High School is the only school in the county that has not been recently renovated.
“The school I worked in at Botetourt was older,” Marshall said. “I obviously got to move to a brand new facility when I moved to Maury River.”
As superintendent, Donald has made a point of trying to narrow the gap between the district’s pay and that of other counties.
Historically, Rockbridge County Schools raised teachers’ salaries by the same percentage every year. However, during the recession when the state was forced to cut spending on schools, the district initiated a freeze on teacher raises. This meant that a teacher would go several years without a pay raise.
“I don’t really think it’s fair to go to a teacher after 20 years and say ‘Hey, you’ve done a great job for 20 years but, by the way, we’re not going to give you another raise,’” Donald said.
In all, after the recession hit, the county was faced with having to function while receiving up to $2 million less in state funding. Along with axing teacher raises, said Donald, the county was forced to close two schools just to stay afloat.
Throughout all of the funding cuts, however, one thing has remained constant: the benefits of a small-town location with proximity to bigger cities.
“So if you want a little bit quieter lifestyle but you still want to have access to other activities and events that a larger city offers, you can do that without a whole lot of trouble,” said Donald.
The location and community of the district have kept Rockbridge County Schools an appealing landing spot for teachers. Enough so that Marshall says that she plans on staying in the county for the long haul.
Marshall says she looks forward to going to work every morning.
“Because of the support, because of the great program that I get to run every day, to me that is more important,” she said.