28 October 2008

An open letter on the closing of Virginia schools.

What follows is an open letter to the Wise County School Board, the Wise County taxpayers and elected officials of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

On Nov. 3 at J. J. Kelly High School in Wise, Mike Mullins (of Wise), Vanessa Perry (of Coeburn), Ted Thompson (of Big Stone Gap), Phillip Bates (of Wise) and Betty Cornett (of Big Stone Gap) will try to sell the people of Wise County their plan to close six schools and charge them with building three new schools. My Wise County elementary school education tells me that if you take six from six and add three you are still short three schools. This cannot happen. This will not happen.

Betty Cornett has said “I see this really as a beginning for Wise County high schools. We will close six schools and create three new schools with new names, new mascots, new colors and equitable curriculum for all our students.” Are you kidding me Mrs. Cornett? You can improve “equitable curriculum” for a lot less than the cost of three new schools and if you want to put the taxpayers on the hook for new names, mascots and colors then you are either misguided or incompetent. Do you think the people of Wise County are fools or do you really think new names, mascots and colors are worth destroying communities? The future of education in America is more schools, smaller schools and more choice but you want to make a net closure of three schools so that you can have new mascots?. Are you kidding me?

In our current presidential election there are few things that Obama and McCain agree on but they both agree on more choice and more competition in schools. One supports charter schools and the other supports vouchers. There is no competition or choice in closing three schools. While the rest of the country moves forward is Wise County to move backwards? If these schools are closed they will not come back. Not in our lifetimes. No one is going to build a charter school in our part of southwest Virginia. All the vouchers in the world won’t pay for a new school. When these schools are gone they are gone folks. The state won’t pay for them. The fed won’t pay for them. And I hate to break it to you but Dominion is not going to pay for them either.

The people of Wise County should take strong offense to this plan. Do Mullins, Perry, Thompson, Bates and Cornett seek nothing more than to improve their budget by cutting jobs? (Well, that and Mrs. Cornett’s new mascots.) Have they forgotten that they were sworn in to do what is best for the children of Wise County? Putting the budget before the students is putting the cart before the horse. Damaging this economy by eliminating jobs is not in the best interest of anyone. Charging the tax payers for three new buildings when you could renovate six for less is not in the best interest of anyone. (Or just five depending on if you include St. Paul which is the newest building and has air conditioning.) Driving kids across these dangerous mountains when they could have stayed in their hometown schools is not in the best interests of anyone. Paying the gas dollars to fuel those busses driving from the far corners of the county is not in the best interests of anyone. Losing the kids that will go to schools outside of the county is not in the best interests of anyone. Losing the faculty and staff families that will need to move to find new jobs is not in the best interest of anyone.

They provide almost no concrete details. The dollars change from meeting to meeting. The location is no more specific than the “general area” of the four lanes. What? If a Wise County child does not live by the four lanes connecting Norton, Coeburn and Wise then they don’t deserve to keep their school? And let’s be perfectly clear. I’ve not been in the high schools of Appalachia, Powell Valley or Pound in several years but the fact of the matter is that St. Paul High School is a very nice air conditioned building it would be foolish spend money to replace it.

I have one daughter currently in St. Paul Elementary and another I plan to send there in a few years. I currently live in Russell County and drive across the river each morning to take my daughter to what she calls a “special school”. If St. Paul High School is closed by the time she is old enough to attend then I promise you she will not attend a school in Coeburn. My children will take their backpacks and their budget dollars to Castlewood. If Castlewood is over flowing with other former St. Paul students by then I would rather move my family further into Russell County and send them to Lebanon before I would send them across the mountain to Coeburn. This is nothing against Coeburn. I like Coeburn plenty but Coeburn is closer to Wise than St. Paul and it does not make any sense to merge the two when St. Paul has a perfectly good building already. I’m sure there are many St. Paul parents that feel the same way. Russell County has shown the good sense to re-model and maintain their schools while Wise County has wasted money on studies for four years. I see progress in Russell County’s leadership. In Wise County’s leadership I see a defeatist backward hopeless attitude.

This plan is so illogical that one has to question the motives of Mike Mullins, Vanessa Perry, Ted Thompson, Phillip Bates and Betty Cornett. When elected officials choose to spend four years researching ideas that are not in Wise County’s best interests then you have to ask if there some unseen motivation? The people of Wise County need to take a hard look at Mike Mullins, Vanessa Perry, Ted Thompson, Phillip Bates and Betty Cornett. What do they look to gain from this? (Well, besides the new mascots.) They have provided so little concrete information that one can’t help but come to conclusions which may not be flattering. Do they look to profit? Are they looking for profit for friends or associates? Are they hoping to profit from the Construction Control Corp of Virginia? Is it just coincidence that the proposal is to build the schools in the same towns these five members are from? The fact that they have refused to base the Nov. 3 public hearing on any details on costs, locations, job loss, transportation costs, or to even have the hearing be open to questions makes one even more skeptical of their motivations. Questions will be asked. They will refuse to answer at their own peril. It may also be worth noting that none of the named school board members have their email addresses listed on the county’s website. In short, are they scoundrels or incompetent? Either conclusion is unacceptable.

After four years of this the buildings could have already been re-modeled. Just look across the river at Castlewood. But still the children of Wise County wait and wait on deliberations. They have put the county right back where it was during the 2004 meeting at J.J. Kelly that ended with Mike Basham being fired. And let us also take a look at the scheduling of this meeting itself. They propose to take schools away from three communities but the hearing is to be in one of the towns promised a new school? How is that fair? The timing is also suspect. The Monday after Halloween and the day before a presidential election could be a hard day for many citizens to fill their gas tanks and drive to Wise. Public outrage is natural and should be expected at the Nov. 3 hearing. The communities that are losing schools should obviously be outraged. The taxpayers of the county as a whole should be outraged both at the cost of three new schools and the loss of jobs. The parents and students of Wise, Coeburn, Big Stone Gap, Pound, Powell Valley and Appalachia should be outraged because their schools could have already been re-modeled by now and a nice shiny new school will not show up any time soon.

We are kidding ourselves if we think these three schools can even be built. There is no money unless you raise taxes on people who are already struggling during harsh economic times. The people of Wise, Coeburn and Big Stone Gap deserve modern facilities but they are kidding themselves if they think this will solve their problems any time soon. They should have been furious and should have demanded remodels four years ago.
Even in the best case scenario where years from now kids could walk into these new schools they will be doing it in a backwards dead county with fewer jobs, no future, no competition and no choice. If I’m wrong and this plan does not cause irreparable damage to the entire county and there is some kind of boom in the county then you are still cursed because you only have three schools to serve an entire county spread over extreme topography. Good luck asking for more schools then. Good luck getting more money then. When these schools are gone these schools are gone folks and we are kidding ourselves if we don’t realize that the elementary schools will be the next in line.

And please understand; let me make perfectly clear; this is not about St. Paul, Appalachia, Pound and Powell Valley vs. Wise, Coeburn and Big Stone Gap. We all want is best for our children, for our economy and our communities. This is about Mike Mullins, Vanessa Perry, Ted Thompson, Phillip Bates and Betty Cornett vs. Wise County.

I am calling on Congressman Rick Boucher, Senator John Warner, Senator Jim Webb, Delegate Bud Phillips, Delegate Terry Kilgore and Governor Kaine to take a hard look at the performance of Mike Mullins, Vanessa Perry, Ted Thompson, Phillip Bates and Betty Cornett on behalf of the families and children of southwest Virginia. I am asking them to stand with us and say no to school closings. (I would forward this email to all of the named School Board members but as I mentioned earlier their email addresses are not listed on the website.)

Concerned Virginian,

Shannon Smith
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