Aging Virginia schools still a problem

Roanoke County School Board chairman says 6 schools need upgrades

ROANOKE COUNTY – The issue of aging schools is growing across the country and, right here in our area, it's potentially affecting your child's learning.

There just isn't enough money to fix them.

Kindergartners are learning but they're also trying to tune out other noise.

"It's something you have to grow accustomed to and it can, at times, be distracting," said Stephanie Hogan, the principal at Glen Cove Elementary School. 

At Glen Cove, there are no walls separating the classrooms. Instead, cubbies and mobile bulletin boards divide four classes.

"They're doing the best they can to provide the best education that we can but the environment is not the most conducive to that. We can do better," said Don Butzer, Roanoke County School Board chairman.

It's the same story for older grades. The open-concept classrooms were once popular but now Butzer say they're a safety issue and a big distraction.

"We want to have a modern environment for our kids. We want to be able to give them the best instructional environment that we possibly can and having some of these old buildings that we have, that you'll see today, is just not conducive to that any longer," said Butzer.

He also said that some people think it would be an easy fix to build walls that's not as simple as one would think. "This is what putting walls up did. You have the same disruption, only in a different way - people moving through classrooms to get from one to the other. It's a condition that I think we need to solve much sooner than later."

At Glenvar Elementary School, our cameras caught students turning around in their seats, away from the teacher. Other students were high-fiving every student who passed by.

"We have more and more kids with trauma that come into our schools and they have behavior issues. If one has to go to the office or that kind of thing, it disrupts three classrooms instead of one," said Matt Johnson, Glenvar Elementary principal.

Roanoke County has 27 schools. Butzer says 21 of them are in pretty good shape.

"We have six schools that are in drastic need of major renovations right now," said Butzer.

W.E. Cundiff, Glen Cove and Glenvar elementary schools, Hidden Valley Middle School, William Byrd High School and the Burton Center are the ones that he says needs to be fixed.

Butzer points to Masons Cove as the "gold standard" for schools.

"You look at the natural light, look at this environment that these kids are working in. They have space to be by themselves and do a little work. There's space to do small reading group work," said Butzer.

But of course, upgrades cost money. Butzer said they will cost $120 million and that amount isn't adjusted for inflation, so the project could take until 2035 or beyond. Under the current agreement with the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors that specifies how they borrow money, the schools get $20 million two out of every three years for major construction and renovations.

"At the end of the day, that environment, I think, is ultimately hurting the experience and the level of instruction that these kids could get if we had more modern facilities," said Butzer.

"Nothing comes without a cost," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil North, who, after seeing the open classrooms, agreed that some schools need some work but the board may have to make some hard decisions. "We're not saying 'yes', we're not saying 'no'. We're saying we're going to talk about it because there are different ways that you can accomplish things if you are willing to save a few extra dollars along the way."

North says the Board of Supervisors would not be in favor of raising taxes and, if it borrows more money, it might have to reduce services or make cuts somewhere else.

"There's no free lunches. We've got to decide: How are we going to pay for it? That's the key: How are we going to pay for it?" said North.

Butzer expects people who live and work in Roanoke County will have to weigh in at some point.
There is a joint meeting between the two boards coming up in July.

Butzer says he has a creative solution that could help save money during renovations and avoid surprises like the Cave Spring High School bidding process.

"What we've done in the past is hiring an architect and then the architect designs the facility, does the drawings and then we do a bidding process," Butzer said. "You can get surprises when you do that and that's evident in the Cave Spring bid that we had. There's other construction models out there where you hire an architect and construction firm at the same time. They start working together on day one and that drives efficiencies. It does it in two ways. You get to build the building faster and generally that's cheaper because time is money. Because you have that collaboration between the architects and the mechanical, electrical and trades folks, you get a better product and less chance for surprise. It's usually a cheaper way to do construction."

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