By Debbie Adams
School Board Chairman Don Butzer has sent letters to the parents of all Roanoke County students asking for support for a bond referendum in November 2021 to provide funds to accelerate the construction of a new Burton Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT). Parents were asked to contact members of the Board of Supervisors to urge their support.
The need for a new BCAT center has been under discussion by the School Board for many months and was the focus of the School Board’s strategic planning session in January. BCAT serves students from all five county high schools in a wide variety of Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.
The School Board believes that “a new facility would demonstrate Roanoke County’s commitment to providing a highly skilled, trained workforce to existing and potential businesses,” Butzer said in his letter. “We believe that the Burton Center should be an integral part of any discussion on economic development in Roanoke County. The center produces highly skilled workers who graduate with good paying jobs waiting for them. Any business looking at relocating to Roanoke County would recognize the Burton Center as a feed for skilled workers.”
The current BCAT facility located in Salem can best be described as “antiquated.” The current campus includes three buildings, all of which were built in the 1960’s and ’70s. To a great extent because of space limitations, BCAT is unable to accept all of those students who apply each year.
Most of the campus lies in a flood plain, making major renovations to the existing buildings impossible (and costing approximately $180,000 in flood insurance each year).
Butzer estimates the cost for a new BCAT facility would be approximately $50 million.
He also sent letters to Glen Cove and W.E. Cundiff Elementary School parents asking for their support in accelerating construction projects at those two schools.
“W.E. Cundiff is one of the only remaining open classroom concept schools remaining in Virginia,” Butzer said. “Dr. Lane, the state school superintendent, visited Cundiff recently and said that he had never seen one in the state. While the administrative staff and teachers do a wonderful job in providing the best educational experience they can under the circumstances, the children who attend these schools are at a disadvantage when compared to the experience received at the rest of the elementary schools in the county.”
The School Board is asking the county to move construction up for a new W.E. Cundiff to 2024. The cost is estimated at $22 million.
The School Board previously sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors in October 2019, asking “for an increase in capital funding to renovate, replace and modernize nine schools which were in various stages of disrepair or totally obsolete.”
When both boards met in December 2019, the solution presented was to increase the borrowing or capital funding from $10 million to $12 million. Given that funding, the three schools in most need for rebuilding, Burton Center, Glen Cove and W.E. Cundiff, would not be completed until 2031with the other six schools in great need of renovation having no funding projected until after 2031.
On February 12, 2021, Jason Peters, chairman of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, sent a response to the School Board. He noted that expenditures for the construction of the three schools—BCAT, Glen Cove, and W.E. Cundiff—would total some $91 million. The county’s Administration and Finance staff analyzed the impact of $91 million in debt on the property tax rate.
“The annual debt service on the $91 million would cost in excess of $5.8 million per year at an assumed interest rate and term of 2.5 percent for 20 years,” Peters explained. “This would require increasing the property tax rate by over six cents per $100 of assessed value and would increase the average homeowner’s property tax by approximately $150 per year.”
The supervisors thought it “highly unlikely that a majority of voters would support such a property tax increase in times of economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Despite declining enrollment, the Board of Supervisors has supported the school budget beyond what is required by the state and has actually exceeded what has been agreed to in policy developed in cooperation with the School Board,” Peters said. “The Board of Supervisors has always placed funding education at the top of our priority list as we know the importance of a quality education system for the wellbeing of our citizens and community.
“Any real solution to increased capital funding for schools should be approached at the State level,” Peters said.
School divisions in Virginia do not have taxing power and cannot issue debt on their own. They rely on state and local government for their funding.
Tim Greenway, who represents Vinton on the School Board said, “We have much to gain from these schools being rebuilt! First as a county, we have needed to update, renovate, or rebuild BCAT for years. Because each board member is from a particular district, BCAT has never been prioritized. Essentially what I’m saying is, we were more concerned with our own part of the world rather than the overall well-being of ourselves, as a whole, in the county.
“Now we have five board members who have recognized we need to rebuild an arts/trades/technology center for the betterment of the whole county and region,” Greenway said. “This can’t be done with the capital allowance given to us from the Board of Supervisors, unless we are willing to wait another 10 years or so. This just isn’t reasonable. We need this school ready for 21st century work force skills and we need it done now for the future of our kids! We want them to stay, work and raise families in the Roanoke region like many of us did in prior years. This can be one of the best economic drivers for the Board of Supervisors in years. And this region certainly needs an economic boost!
“Lastly, we have two schools built in the early ’70s with an open concept style classroom. W.E. Cundiff and Glen Cove were built in a time when the open concept of classrooms was a new phase of education. Today, we may have the only two open concept elementary schools left in Virginia. The schools are beyond repair in some facets: our Pre-K classrooms at Cundiff have no running water; there is paneling in many areas of the school (safety issues) and the open concept has been proven not to be effective for the majority of the student population.”
“Penn Forest was changed from open concept in 2004,” said Greenway. “Why were these two schools left off the correction of this problem? We need to have these schools brought to a fair and equitable stance with our other counterparts in the county.”
Greenway said that he hopes both boards can work together to quickly remedy the three schools in the next couple of years.
“It won’t be easy! It may mean raising sales tax (which many counties have already done); it may mean a slight increase in real estate taxes, or some other means to make this happen now. As you know, it’s an election year and we will have to get everyone from our boards to agree this is the right thing to do now and not wait until elections are over. Ask your school or supervisors member if they support doing what we need to do to get this done now!”
Citizens who would like to express an opinion may email Chairman Jason Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org, David Radford at email@example.com, Phil North at firstname.lastname@example.org, Martha Hooker at email@example.com, and Paul Mahoney at firstname.lastname@example.org.