David Reynolds | A middle road

Let’s keep it simple. And positive. Here’s my thought. If the White House believes that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, we should follow suit. And if we do, our kids will thank us. Here’s all we have to do: Allow the City of Lexington to operate a consolidated middle school at the soon to be renovated Lylburn Downing Middle School site, assimilating students from the county’s Maury River Middle School 1.4 miles away.

That’s right. Put the super sensitive school consolidation issue on the other foot! Remember 1992? After years of talk Rockbridge County finally took over grades 9 through 12 from Lexington. A fine school was built called Rockbridge County High School. Except, like the new courthouse, someone forgot to add “Lexington” to its name. Now its the city’s turn.

In order to get to first base on this issue we need a clear understanding that public schools exist solely to serve future generations, not those of us who continually make a mess of things. Just follow those license plates that read “Kids First.” That means we should stop hanging independent city status on the backs of our kids. It also means that since our schools account for roughly half of our local budgets, we need to spend this money better. If we do, local tax collections will stop outpacing inflation and population growth. Blaming Richmond for our budget shortfalls is counterproductive for all parties.

Now back to the other foot. When the county administrator released a short white paper on possible school consolidation most of us (including this county resident) assumed it was the first shot fired by the Board of Supervisors aimed at an eventual takeover of Lexington’s schools. No wonder it bombed! No one wants to be put on the defensive. If I were on the city council or the city school board I would turn a cold shoulder to the paper.

Then this month a couple of events took place that forces us to see our school needs in a different light. First, construction bids came in for the Lylburn Downing Middle School (LDMS) and its community center. Not unexpectedly, they were high, $2.5 million above the low-cost state loan the city had secured for the school alone.

Next came $787 billion of federal “stimulus” spending. I am sure that the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who also moonlights as the Governor of Virginia, will not stand in the way of LDMS getting a piece of this action, namely the $40.6 billion aid to the states for education, with the emphasis on modernizing schools. According to the Washington Post this translates into “enough funding to refurbish at least 165 schools in Virginia.” Assuming that our man with two hats knows which political party Lexington loves most, LDMS should be able to get a slice of the pie. Excuse me, pork, which tastes better when it is home-cooked.

The Wall Street Journal raises the question of whether we can spend all of this latest handout. Silly question. That’s because sitting up there in Lower Manhattan the Journal’s writers don’t know anything about Lexington or Virginia. Or about our wives. Memo to the WSJ: Please don’t worry, we can spend everything given to us. In Virginia, the business of government is spending.

So, where are we? The Lexington School Board has a meeting on Monday, Feb. 23. It can approve a “low bid” for LDMS of just under $10 million. This will allow reconstruction work to start – but it will also essentially pre-opt the city’s capital budget for the next five years and place the Waddell Elementary School project in a holding pattern. This is the business as usual option. There’s another option. Delay construction for a few months in order for the City of Lexington to achieve its three unwritten goals: (1) Remain an independent city by having a viable school system; (2) Provide quality education to both city and county students; and (3) Free up its five year capital budget to fund needed non-school projects. (Designing an additional wing to LDMS to house future county students is feasible. Buena Vista designed an expansion wing when it built its new high school.)

We are now in a whole new money game. It is played in trillions and billions. Washington never dreamed of so many zeros! We tax nationally; spend locally. The state $7.5 million Liberty Loan at 3 percent for LDMS is nice, but it is peanuts. Now is the time to buy an elephant. Cheap. If we can not find a little local money in the 1,073-page monstrosity signed by the president this week – a law which breaks down to $733,457,656 per page, excluding interest payments — then we don’t deserve a dime.

Which shall it be Lexington? Play your school card now or face town status later? Business as usual or carpe diem?

 

Column by David Reynolds



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