Illustration bt Arnel Reynon
My son spent the last school year in a tin can. It was decorated to look like a classroom, with desks and white boards and posters of presidents, but if we are being honest, it was a tin can: a windowless trailer with a busted lock on the bathroom door, shared with 28 other students, where the simple act of picking up a pencil could give the kid next to him a jab in the ribs.
This could be almost any public school, but it happens to be J.B. Watkins Elementary — at 120 percent capacity, with 1,006 students, Chesterfield County's most overcrowded school. Watkins is at the center of a fight that will play itself out on Election Day, Nov. 5.
Chesterfield wants to build a new school to alleviate the overcrowding there and at Bettie Weaver Elementary, and it also wants to renovate 10 others, including Beulah Elementary, built in 1947; Matoaca Elementary, built in 1937; and Enon Elementary, built in 1928. Yes, 1928. That's a whole year after Al Jolson kicked off that "talkie" fad.
The county is proposing $304 million in bonds as well as (and I will spell it out just in case there are little eyes reading this) a 2 percent meals T-A-X. The Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce and Chesterfield Business Council both back the proposal. But the rabid anti-tax crowd is out in full force, strafing the comment threads of Internet news articles.
"Bus the kids to some schools where there is space. Schools are for learning, not neighborhood conferences."
Excellent point! Because history has taught us nothing if not that busing works!
"The special interest [groups] want all the extra goodies at the expense of the taxpayers." (This guy goes on to define "extra goodies" as extracurricular activities, field trips, after-school sports, etc. "Parents should pay for these extra goodies, not the taxpayer," he writes.)
Guess what, brainiac? We already do! And we also supply classrooms with tissues, hand sanitizer, plastic bags, donated books and other classroom essentials that otherwise teachers have to dig into their own pockets for.
My favorite comment is the one that anyone who has had no contact with the public schools for 20 years should be exempt from meals tax. Shall we designate Applebee's waitstaff as the gatekeepers for this particular exemption? "Hi, I'm Ashley, and I'll be your server tonight! I'll tell you all about our specials in a minute but first, is there anyone in your party who has not had a child in Chesterfield County Public Schools for 20 years?"
How can anyone believe that we stop benefiting from public schools the day our child moves his tassel from right to left? Good schools are the anchors of great communities. People move into a neighborhood to be near a great school, not an overcrowded one. Graduates of your neighborhood schools open coffee shops and insurance offices there, they fix your fuel pump and set your daughter's cast at the ER. To say your taxes shouldn't go to schools because you don't use them is like saying that because your house never burned down, you shouldn't support the fire department.
So Chesterfield voters will have to make the excruciating decision whether these proposals are worth adding one dollar to a $50 restaurant tab. They had no trouble passing 2004's bond referendum for school capital projects by an overwhelming majority, but there was no new tax in that referendum.
Personally, I will be voting "yes" even though my son will not gain a stitch of elbow room from it. He'll be long gone from Watkins by the time a new school arrives in 2020. Besides, he's not in the tin can anymore. This year, he's in the larger, much swankier mega tin can.