Practicing fiscal responsibility is admirable — especially for the Bristol Virginia City Council — but it’s never the wrong time to invest in the future.
Mayor Kevin Mumpower pumped the brakes Tuesday night during a proposal by Superintendent Keith Perrigan to provide more than $14 million in funding to the city’s four elementary schools for safety and accessibility improvements.
The School Board voted last week to ask the city for $14.4 million in capital funding to upgrade its four elementary schools and an additional $300,000 for salary raises as part of its budget request.
The pitch comes a year after the council rejected a $18.5 million board plan to close three of the four schools in favor of constructing a new combined school — an idea that Perrigan advocated for once again in his latest presentation.
Mumpower’s concern was that it’s not the right time to take on another high-dollar project, even with the city’s finances on an upswing. His logic is commendable. Bristol, Virginia, has several balls in the air right now, and even one misstep could throw the city off balance again.
Instead, Mumpower suggested Perrigan create a two-year plan to fund improvements to city schools and prioritize the needs of each school in a more manageable way while the city gets back on solid ground. He said the council could provide the school system with a few million dollars to start improvement projects on the schools — an idea that Perrigan shot down because of the merry-go-round the School Board and the city have been on for the past several years regarding school funding.
Due to its unique funding through the Virginia Public-Private Educational Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA), the new school project likely wouldn’t impose any burden on taxpayers since it would primarily be paid for through savings generated by closing three older schools and decreasing staff size, according to Perrigan.
That’s an idea we could get behind, but there are other expenses such as potentially tearing down an existing school and road and interchange improvements that wouldn’t be covered by the PPEA funding. Those would be additional costs that would affect taxpayers and add to the city’s still more than $100 million debt.
We support the School Board’s push for safety and ADA improvements in our schools. Those are important steps for the community to become more inclusive and secure for our children.
But we also commend the City Council’s wariness over jumping into another large development project just as their finances are getting back on the straight and narrow.
The key for doing what’s best for the city’s future can certainly come from a place of compromise, and we think the mayor’s suggestion is on the right track. However, as Perrigan pointed out, the School Board needs to see action on the part of the City Council if they want everyone to come to the table.
The School Board could create a five-year plan to phase out the existing elementary schools to make way for construction of a new combined school that’s reviewed and modified every year based on the city’s financial standing and the progress of economic development projects, like the CBD oil plant and the casino, as long as the city continues to prioritize the needs of the school system during its budgeting process.
Schools are a significant factor when a business considers moving into a community. Not only is Bristol, Virginia, shooting itself in the foot by not correcting these issues with their current schools, they are hampering economic development’s efforts to recruit new business.
It’s time for Bristol to make the push to start improving the state of schools within the city, and we think our current leaders are more than apt to work out a deal that suits everyone. At least, we hope they are — because the children are our future, and ready or not, the future is now.