Beyond the “McHarg Boiler” – investing in Radford City Schools is Economic Development

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In his Letter to the Editor (April 5, 2019), Councilman Gropman asserts that Radford City has “a top notch school system which is a testament to the dedicated, caring, professional staff” (Letter to the Editor, April 5, 2019).

As a parent, I could not agree more. The Radford City Public Schools’ stellar reputation is what led my husband and me to purchase our home in Radford. Our daughter’s experience at McHarg Elementary has exceeded all of our hopes and expectations. Not only has the faculty demonstrated the warmth and baseline knowledge expected of all teachers, they have all proven to be among the most creative and engaged professionals I have had the pleasure to know over my own twenty-two year career in K-12 and higher education.

Supporting the system’s teachers are strong school administrators that have ensured all faculty have access to cutting-edge professional development, as well as a central office that constantly seeks out and secures funding through highly competitive, external grants to ensure that all of the children of Radford have access to the very best educational opportunities. That all of this has happened in spite of the current condition of the Radford City School System’s “bricks and mortars” is no small feat—but neither is it something to brag about.

I believe that Councilman Gropman sets up a false dichotomy by claiming that “we need to get the economic development piece working before school funding.” Economic development is about much more than figuring out what to do with the Foundry. It must include multiple, complementary strategies designed to empower Radford to begin to capitalize on the incredible economic growth taking place between Roanoke and the New River Valley, on and beyond our local university campuses.

Robust economic development must also include attracting more property-owning residents to Radford’s tax base. Families buy homes in the very best school district that they can afford. It is why my husband—who is from this area and knows the area well—and I very intentionally chose to buy in Radford instead of buying in Blacksburg or Riner. We have extolled the virtues of the Radford City Schools to friends and colleagues who are in the market for a new house in the New River Valley, but it has been a tough sell. Unfortunately, a historic reputation for excellence is not enough. And it is not just about McHarg’s boiler.

For students to engage in the kinds of applied and integrative educational experiences that foster not just foundational learning but the critical thinking and problem-solving skills employers as well as colleges and universities say are essential to success, classroom space matters. For a system to consistently field state championship teams, we need safe, updated facilities. Deferred maintenance becomes exponentially more expensive with each delay.

Radford citizens need not look far to find a cautionary tale—residents of the River City need only look across the New River at Pulaski County. If we do not invest in our schools’ infrastructure now, within a short few years, Radford runs the very real risk of finding itself in a situation similar to that of Pulaski County a few years ago—complete with dangerously decaying infrastructure due to disregard and disinvestment—a situation that was only addressed through a highly contentious bond initiative.

Ironically, Radford’s school infrastructure may be hitting crisis stage just as the new Pulaski County middle school comes on-line. Perhaps Pulaski County’s version of investing in “bricks and mortar” for the future will prove to be an all-too-enticing alternative for all of the Radford tuition students who reside in places like Fairlawn, Dublin, and Draper and currently pay to attend Radford schools as out-of-district students—and upon whom we are dependent financially and for our athletic status. If these students and parents choose to leave Radford City Public Schools, that will only further exacerbate our system’s deficits.

So yes, by all means, let’s congratulate the city’s educators for all they have achieved for our students in spite of the current condition of our classrooms, gyms, cafeterias, locker rooms, libraries, and the McHarg boiler. Imagine, however, what a Radford education would look like if our facilities were not merely hurdles to overcome, not a series of emergencies competing for attention and temporary, “band-aid” solutions. Imagine instead what a Radford education would look like if its classrooms and buildings were the robust foundation upon which all students received the high-quality education they deserve.

Nostalgia cloaked in civic pride does nothing for Radford today, never mind for future generations. Last year’s election for Radford City Council represented a call for change. Council members were elected on the promise of investing in Radford’s future, which today means calling on the City’s citizenry to invest in its schools. It is incumbent upon our current elected representatives to demonstrate creative and nimble leadership to find the way forward to ensure an excellent public education for all its children. Radford’s legacy of past success means nothing without a dynamic and vibrant future. Because investing in education is economic development.

Respectfully,

Kate McConnell, Radford City Resident