By Alexandra Cline
An ad hoc committee of Lexington officials is revisiting a nearly 30-year-old agreement that resulted in the city’s lack of a voice in the operations of Rockbridge County High School.
The 1989 agreement replaced the area’s three small high schools, including Lexington High School, with a consolidated RCHS, which opened in 1992. Since then, taxpayers in Lexington have paid part of the RCHS budget based on the proportion of its students there. This year, Lexington is paying 15 percent – or, $1.4 million.
“Our parents in the city of Lexington have zero input. There’s no reason whatsoever not to ask the question, ‘Is that the best agreement possible?’” said Lexington City Council Member Patrick Rhamey.
Lexington’s new ad hoc committee is Rhamey’s idea. The political science professor at Virginia Military Institute has two children who will reach high school age in about 10 years.
Council Member Michele Hentz and Lexington School Board members Owen Collins and Jeannie VanNess are joining Rhamey on the committee, which met for the first time last week.
As a first step, the committee plans to collect “data points” about Lexington students at the high school, including graduation rates, GPAs and extracurricular participation.
In late spring or early summer, the committee will draft a survey about the high school for the Lexington school system to send out to families of Lexington students of all ages.
“There have always been some people who have had questions or curiosity about the high school arrangement,” Collins said. “What the ad hoc committee is doing is trying to listen to those concerns.”
Lexington’s high school arrangement
Currently, 152 Lexington students attend the high school, which enrolls about 1,000 students. Under the agreement with the county, Lexington is responsible for paying “tuition” to the county equal to the percentage of city students at the high school.
For Rhamey, the biggest issue is that Lexington doesn’t have a voice in curriculum or capital decisions at the high school because it’s under the county’s control.
At previous council and school board meetings, Rhamey presented several potential alternatives to the current RCHS arrangement. He said he wasn’t endorsing any one option, but wants to see if a better – and more cost-efficient – arrangement could work. One option, he said, could be the creation of an “urban campus” using underutilized buildings in downtown Lexington.
Per the agreement, the city is also required to pay its share of capital improvement projects undertaken by the high school. The county recently decided to move forward with HVAC renovations, meaning Lexington will potentially be responsible for paying $20,000 more a year for the next 15 years.
The HVAC project will only put an eight-to-10-year “Band-Aid” on the building, said Lexington school Superintendent Scott Jefferies. After that, Jefferies said, the county will have to determine whether the high school will need a major renovation, a brand-new school or an option in between.
“During this window of time, we’re trying to determine, as a city, what the current situation is at the high school,” Jefferies said. “It’s easy to sit back and accept what we have, but we wanted to look at it to see if we’re getting the best value for our money. Is it fiscally the best set up? Could we get the same or better instructional quality for the same or cheaper dollar amount?”
Consolidation controversy of the 1980s
The 1989 consolidation formed a new school out of the existing Rockbridge High School, Natural Bridge High School and Lexington High School. (As for the buildings, Rockbridge High became Rockbridge Middle and Lexington High became Maury River Middle School. Today, the former Natural Bridge High is the Stonebridge Center, and the former Rockbridge Middle building in Fairfield is Rivermont School Rockbridge, a school for special needs students.)
At the time, the decision faced considerable backlash throughout the Rockbridge area, particularly among those worried about the increased tax burden. Citizen groups, including Taxpayers Against Consolidation, thought that the county school board had failed to thoroughly consider other options.
Some community members also feared that students would be spending considerably more time riding the bus to a consolidated school in the county. Some saw their local schools as a vital part of the community.
Lexington High offered advanced courses that weren’t available to county high school students, and addressing that disparity was one of the most significant arguments in favor of consolidation.
Robert Cook, who wrote his honors thesis at Eastern Mennonite University on the consolidation, said the issue was contentious and opinion largely divided.
“It addressed the educational inequality, and I would say that was one of the good aspects of it,” Cook said. “But it has impacted local communities that once had schools and now don’t.”
In the 1989 referendum, county residents approved the issuing of bonds for a new consolidated high school by a vote of 1,398 to 1,368 – a margin of only 30 votes. The voter turnout throughout the county was below 40 percent. Lexington was not included in the vote, but paid 20 percent of the capital costs.
Cook, a 2013 graduate of Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista, said one of the benefits of a small local school is the close connection between students and teachers. In a neighborhood school, teachers tend to know a student’s family, which helps meet the individual needs of students in the classroom, he said.
Sarah Sleime, who was part of the first graduating class of RCHS in 1993, said the consolidation was met with animosity among students in the existing high schools. As a student who attended the smaller Lexington High School for three years, she said the change felt “overwhelming” and “very upsetting.”
“There was a lot of tension between the city kids and the county kids,” said Sleime, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., and works as a product manager at Wells Fargo. “We weren’t welcomed or liked by the county kids. Lots of stereotypes abounded on both sides.”
But after the initial shock, she said, she enjoyed the broader range of classes and the student body dynamic that a larger school provided.
“To finish our last year in that environment wasn’t something we were looking forward to, but it actually wasn’t that bad,” Sleime said. “I felt like I lived in a bubble at [Lexington High School], but having that year there with greater diversity was great. We had judged all of the county kids prior to that point, but I actually made friends with many of them.”
The future of RCHS
Jefferies said the city doesn’t have the exact figures for how many students choose not to attend RCHS after finishing Lylburn Downing Middle School.
“In my experience, students who leave to go to private schools do so for two reasons,” said Sarah Leonard, Lylburn Downing’s guidance counselor. “Either it is a family tradition, meaning parents and siblings have gone to that private school and they want to continue that tradition, or the smaller setting of a private school seems to the parents to be a better fit for their child than a large public school.”
Collins and Jefferies said RCHS provides strong programs for Lexington students. They said the committee – which plans to meet again on Feb. 13 – is exploring a number of options.
“This is really a beginning phase of this,” Jefferies said. “It’s going to be years and years before [something], if anything, is done.”