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In Petersburg, Advocates Highlight Virginia’s Urgent Need for School Infrastructure Upgrades

Person looks up at ceiling with water damage
Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) tours the Westview Early Childhood Center as part of the Crumbling Schools Tour. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

A group of advocates and local officials toured the Westview Early Childhood Center in Petersburg on Tuesday to showcase the school district’s urgent infrastructure needs. The group wants state lawmakers to address these needs using a mix of federal, state and local funding.

The Petersburg visit was the latest in the Crumbling Schools Tour, which aims to offer those in charge of education policy a “first-hand look” at the conditions students in high-poverty districts face every day.

“This is what our students see and our staff see every single day,” said Maria Pitre-Martin, the superintendent for Petersburg City Public Schools. “In order to get to a real solution, we have to show what our concerns are. We can talk about it all day, but you need to see it.”

During the tour, the pre-school’s principal, Stacie Parhem, highlighted small cosmetic imperfections and severe structural problems throughout the building: Cracks on the floor, molding walls, water damage on the ceiling and a lack of fire sprinklers, among other issues.

The school was built in 1958 and is in serious need of renovations. Petersburg school officials are hoping to secure enough funding to have a new school building take its place by 2023. The city plans to consolidate Westview with the nearby Walnut Hill Elementary, which was built in 1952 and is also in dire need for upgrades.

“The first year I was here, this particular school had an extreme issue with pipes and the sewer system. Parents consistently were asking, ‘why can’t we have a new school?’ This has gone on for too long,” Pitre-Martin said. “We have heard from parents… They have wanted new schools in Petersburg for 15-plus years.”

The Crumbling Schools Tour is hosted by Virginia Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, the Virginia School Boards Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and the Fund Our Schools Coalition, among other groups. The tour has also made stops in Radford, Luray, Waynesboro and other districts.

Keith Perrigan is the president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, and also the schools superintendent in Bristol. One of his main demands from federal lawmakers is that they push back the deadline for spending money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which is exclusively available for pandemic-relief purposes.

“Municipalities have until 2026 to spend their federal COVID funds. School divisions are on a tighter window and have to spend it by 2024. It’s causing us to have to rush through the decisions instead of using the money in a way that makes sense for our communities,” he said.

A tight deadline means school districts are spending the money on temporary, band-aid solutions, fixing up decades-old buildings that are due to be demolished soon. If the deadline to spend ESSER money is pushed to 2026, localities could rebuild their buildings first, then use the relief funding to enhance those new buildings.

He’s also calling on state lawmakers to keep school infrastructure a top priority as they delegate how to spend over $4 billion in stimulus money during the upcoming General Assembly session.

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to allocate $250 million of these funds to improving ventilation systems in schools, in an effort to make a return to in-person classes more feasible. But Perrigan, along with other education experts and advocates, have criticized this plan as misguided.

“We have HVAC already as an approved expense under our current ESSER funds, so that recommendation is duplicative, and it is also shortsighted,” he said. Perrigan says school districts would be better off if state lawmakers allowed them more flexibility to spend the money as they see fit.

He added that using state stimulus funding for HVAC improvements would benefit affluent schools, while leaving behind urban, rural and high-poverty schools:

“High-poverty school divisions get a larger share of the ESSER funds, but the guidelines are stricter on how we can use it. Affluent school divisions get less money set aside for that, so they may not be able to use their ESSER funds for HVAC, but because the state is setting aside a portion of their federal dollars, that will open up new opportunities for affluent school divisions to leverage that money in that direction,” Perrigan explained.

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