By Pam Dudding
The reality of life sometimes hits closer to home when it comes to schools and their conditions and needs, especially ones that young children attend.
Craig County Public Schools (CCPS) are no different. There are many structural and cultural needs, yet the staff and administration works diligently to uncover any stones for a betterment of their schools, with such a low budget.
The state of Virginia recognizes this and formed a team called the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools (COSARS) which recently sponsored a tour to visit each school in order to get a “birds eye view.”
On Thursday, July 22, Superintendent Jeanette Warwick led this team and others through the schools.
CCPS serves 550 students with an annual budget of approximately seven million dollars. The tour was scheduled to look at the “crumbling” parts of the schools in hopes of receiving funding to provide students with a safer and better-functioning facility.
Warwick agreed that Craig County Public Schools staff and Board members are striving to change it to “No Crumbling Schools on My Watch.” However, they need the help of the state and federal funding as well as the community to make it happen as they hold strong to their motto of, “Every Child a Graduate, Every Child Prepared for Life.” Yet, for them to be prepared means they should have better, if not the best, equipment and facilities available to them.
Individuals who participated in the tour include Larry Cummings and Kathy Cox (Trane, sponsors), Dan Berenato (Senior Project Manager with Thompson & Litton) Jack Murphy (Thompson & Litton), Rosa Atkins (U. S. Department of Education), Joshua Hess (Deputy District Director for Morgan Griffith’s office), Rebecca Marsh (Senator Kaine’s Office), Kathi Toelke (Craig County Board of Supervisors), Trace Bellassai and George Foster (School Board Members), Samuel Foster (Assistant Superintendent of Administration), Gerri Vandyke (McCleary Principal), Carter Malpass from WDBJ-7 and Pam Dudding, representing The New Castle Record.
Warwick welcomed everyone and handed each a layout of the schools, which explained the construction dates as well as the later additions. McCleary Elementary opened its doors in 1969. The High School opened 1988 and the addition of the middle school, cafeteria, auxiliary gym, media Center and administrative offices became available in 2002. Additional changes to McCleary were made in 1977 and 2002.
Said Warwick while giving the tour, “Overview of all three schools are on one campus so we can go from preschool all the way around. When I was at graduation, I got to see kids whom I had seen in elementary school walk across the stage, so there are a lot of great things about having a smaller school. Our students share a cafeteria, gymnasiums, and an auditorium. Therefore, some of the capital improvements we hope to put into place using the fundings will assist all of our students K-12.”
Warwick led the tour and explained each area’s needs:
- Elementary School (classroom) – the oldest part of the building
- The sinks are original (from 1969) and are not ADA compliant
- The restrooms are not ADA compliant. Should a child come that needs handicap accessibility, it is not available in each classroom
- Kindergarten (classroom) – which has two construction additions. Section 1 was a part of the 1977 addition and the other was in 2002. The floor has damage from settling which was obvious by its discoloration and condition. The roof leaks at the construction joint. When they added the newer addition, they did add a handicap accessible bathroom, the only one available for students. (Warwick noted they did enter the Energy Performance Contract, pre-COVID and replaced the big units with mini splits which are nice and cool.)
- Playground equipment – Warwick shared that last year at this time, it was covered with caution tape as the metal floors were literally crumbling as maintenance was inspecting and one person’s foot went through the platform.
- Warwick said, “We are understanding to how important it is for our kids to get outside. We received a matching grant from Game Time and our School Board approved the use of some of capital funds to replace the playground. This has been so great for our kids and the community uses it almost every weekend. You will see families with their children, parents playing basketball with their kids and picnicking on the tables. It has been a worthwhile investment.”
- Cafeteria – “These are our heroes who have fed our kiddos all through the pandemic and have done a fantastic job. The kitchen AC unit stopped working and is not repairable. We did install four mini-splits which help with AC, but not with the ventilation. The unit servicing this cafeteria is partially working but if it stops, we cannot repair it anymore. Pre-K –12 uses this cafeteria. We hope to install a new unit here with the funding.”
- New cafeteria tables with stools have been purchased to help with social distancing
- Auxiliary gym – No AC or ventilation, but there was a huge fan blowing
- Nurse’s Office – The room was added and has no ceiling. They feel it would be better to have an isolation room with a separate AC system. There is also a roof water leak that needs to be repaired. In 2008, a grant was received. The school system entered into a partnership with Monroe Health Center and Dental Center, with an agreement to give them space and have a Physician Assistant or a physician three days a week for half a day. Parents could give permission for kids to have appointments. Due to Covid, a Physician Assistant was not available at the school last year, but students “could access the Center in town. They had all the necessary items needed to test for Covid and all the precautions.”
- Partnership made it convenient for many families for both dental and wellness. They conduct physicals for sporting events. Dental is available twice a week for our students.
- Note: Open house on August 5, CCPS invited Monroe Health Center to set up a vaccination station for those who wish to get the vaccine.
- Media Center/ Library – serves grades 6-12. Again, it was noted that once the current compressors stop working, they have to be replaced next time. Hopes are to replace the HVAC with the funding. A question was asked if they did not already have the funding. Warwick said that the estimated total cost is $3 million to replace everything and $1.5 in the account to use (which partly must be used for learning loss). The School Board will have to pick and choose and prioritize all these important projects.
- Berenato added, “The things that are exacerbating are that the funds are required to use certain percentages. Then, there is the Covid bubble for inflation with a back log of materials from structural steel to chips in a computer system or HVAC control system and everything is getting backed up.” Cox added, “There’s the inflating prices of 25 to 30 percent on top.” Berenato continued, “They were looking for some relief on the time frames so that the schools wouldn’t have to pay the exorbitant costs, hoping the bubble of inflation will come down. Lumber prices spiked but are now coming back down. What normally may cost a million may cost $1.5 million and that is one challenge that all Superintendents and School Boards have right now. These systems have a number of compressors in them and maybe two out of the four are not working. It is a year 2000 vintage HVAC, which uses a refrigerant that has since been banned and no longer produced, therefore it is much more expensive now to repair as they are not manufactured any longer, so they are all used parts. There is an environmental issue to it as well. Mechanical units rated life is around 15 years and we are going on over a 20-year operation, replacing R-22 factors.”
- Cummings works with legislators and Senator Kaine and is hoping they will extend the dates to use the funds available for the schools to void the current inflation rates. “CCPS has done a great job at keeping up the operations, with units being 20 years and older,” he said.
- Girls Locker rooms – pre-1988 section. This is high on the priority list of the school as the floors are cracked all the way through and swelling, the showers are old and no partitions therefore not used, little ventilation causing a serious musty odor, plumbing issues, bathrooms are in dire need of work. They do have one shower that works but fixtures predate 1988.
- Many cosmetic issues were noted during the tour, such as missing or damaged baseboards, stained floors, etc.
- Weight room – CCPS had gotten most things second-hand where neighboring schools called and asked if they wanted them. “It would be nice to have a place where our athletes could work out,” Warwick said. Floors were stained, cracked and the room is very small, with much used manual equipment and no ventilation or AC. Currently, they moved many of the weights into the auxiliary gym while working with the football conditioning team for now. Warwick added, “This is a dream project.”
- Boys’ locker room – The lockers were not in working condition. Warwick found used ones at a reasonable price. They do not have a field house or team rooms. Warwick noted when she first came to CCPS there were two mobile units in the back of the school which were condemned and had to be removed but was where football players had their team room and weight room. When visiting teams come now, their room is small and there is very little storage rooms for PE and sports
- Hallways in high school – Warwick found used lockers on govdeals.com in South Carolina. The colors blended with the school colors, however, they are off the floor, exposing the bad condition of the flooring under the old lockers. “Maintenance drove down to pick them up and one of the crew had never been to the beach, so they drove him over to look at the ocean for the first time, which was great,” Warwick shared.
- Auditorium – Warwick stated that though they have tried to stay ahead, it has been “pieced together over the years as we can afford it without budget.” It is original to the school and not ADA compliant. If students are in a wheelchair, they sit them where they can see. They can enter from behind the stage area. Seating is very old, and many are loose from the bolts. Hopes in the future are to convert it for classroom use if social distancing is necessary again. Also, the large area would make an excellent learning space. Carpet is very old and difficult to clean and maintain. AC is original to the building and doesn’t work properly all the time and once unit breaks, it will have to be replaced. Ventilation is an issue. Warwick shared the area has been used for many events: the K-12 music teacher likes to showcase her children with a musical in the spring and needs new lighting and curtains, monthly School Board meetings, a community space for dance recitals and other community events. She added, “We would like for it to be a community center once again, as there are no other options in Craig County. This has been on our capitol list since 2016, but we have not had the funding.”
- Berenato added the modern age VAC, not only has better ventilation, but better filtration too.
- Regular Bathrooms – in great need of upgrades and renovations
- Science room – Samuel Foster, a former Chemistry teacher, noted the Chemistry room is original, but Biology room is “somewhat” upgraded with tables.
- Chemistry room, Foster expanded on the fact that the largest problem with the space is that is also the classroom, which is the middle of the lab. Renovating this kind of space is costly “as all the piping, gas lines and electrical is underground.” He noted they have designed labs and activities utilizing the space they have including switching over to micro-chemistry, reducing the dangers to almost nothing, using solvents that are very dilute, yet not trying to diminish what they have for the students. Foster taught at Northside, built in the 60s, and went through several additions and renovations while there, totaling $15 million.
- Ag classroom – A new Ag and Consumer Science teacher was hired. CCPS is unable to add a full center, therefore they partner with Botetourt County Schools BTEC (Botetourt Technical Education Center) program, paying tuitions for students to attend, using a part of the Perkins funding along with the Boards commitment, to make sure every student receives assistance as much as possible. Classes offered at BTEC include are Aerospace Technology, Auto Body or Service, Building Trades, Computer Systems, Cosmetology, Criminal Justice, Cybersecurity, Engineering, Mechatronics, Nurse Aide, Veterinary Technology and Welding.
- Warwick proudly shared, “One of our students went to BTEC, graduated in welding and is now an underwater welder in Germany and loving it. Still, it would be great to have more options here so that our kids to not have to cross the mountain.”
- Ag Shop – space was filled with multiple tools and equipment, as well as wood, etc. There is a greenhouse in the back of the school, where the students sell their plants to the public, after they have planted and raised them. “We would love to have updated equipment and our teacher, Mr. Flinchum, has done great progress with our students,” Warwick said.
- Internet – Foster (in charge of construction and CTE) said that currently, they have fiber, the students have Chromebooks, and the teachers have touch screen boards to use in their classrooms. They are able to keep up with the technology, as they receive grants annually and “have purposefully used those towards the avenues, in progressive cycles.” However, it was stressed that when the kids are home, in the country areas, there is limited access and no access for some. Yet during Covid, the school did purchase hot spots so that they could send them home with students who did not have connectivity and also added accessibility points at each fire and rescue station for kids to access if possible. (However, Warwick noted that when the Governor closed school in March, they did not have Chromebooks at that time, therefore did packets for each child to pick up and drop off weekly from the school.) Warwick shared they had to be very careful about calling virtual days as all kids were not able to access the curriculum, using it very sparingly.
- Classroom Kitchen – based on students’ surveys, they wanted more electives, therefore this past year, they began a family consumer science classroom with a certified teacher. The area needs much updating and totally renovation for use. Another kitchen is shared with another program, until it is completed.
- Preschool received a new playground last year.
Everyone gathered back in the room for a catered lunch of pulled pork, chicken, slaw, potato salad, beans and cookies, compliments of Trane.
Much more conversation continued between different parties and Warwick thanked everyone for attending.