Petersburg, Colonial Heights District Border Mostly Deeply Divided by Race, Funding
National education advocacy group EdBuild has a new report out called Dismissed: America’s Most Divisive Borders, comparing race and funding in school districts right next to each other. Whittney Evans and Megan Pauly discussed some of the data on Virginia school district borders.
Evans: So tell us a little bit about that report.
Pauly: They wanted to study how schools are still extremely segregated, and where that segregation is most striking, and what’s causing it.
Evans: So they looked at these district borders all over the country. Where did they find the most severe gaps in Virginia?
Pauly: Petersburg Public Schools and Colonial Heights Public Schools. Only about 2% of Petersburg’s students are white, compared to 64% in Colonial Heights. The numbers were similar when comparing Petersburg to other neighboring districts like Dinwiddie.
Evans: Ok -- could you explain a little bit more about the funding differences?
Pauly: Colonial Heights gets $5,000 more in local per pupil revenue than Petersburg. That’s due in part to the complicated state funding formula that’s supposed to determine a locality’s ability to pay. The state does chip in more to those localities that don’t pull in as much tax revenue. But in Petersburg’s case, even with the extra state support, schools there still get about $3,000 less per student than in Colonial Heights.
Evans: Got it. Overall, though, the study didn’t rate Virginia as poorly as other states. Why is that?
Pauly: Well, Virginia and a lot of other states in the south have school divisions that cover more square miles. So, as EdBuild’s CEO Rebecca Sibilia says, that helps increase student diversity and often times helps with funding, too.
Rebecca Sibilia: “The broader that we can draw borders, the more opportunity that we have to equalize across those borders.”
Pauly: So in that way, she says other states particularly in the North -- where often districts don’t cover as much geographic area, and there are more of them -- actually have a lot to learn from Virginia.
Evans: So could districts come together to consolidate to address segregation?
Pauly: Well…yes. However, the Supreme Court has made that really difficult to do. Forty-five years ago, they ruled that courts can’t order districts to consolidate based on segregation. In the '70s, there actually was a plan to consolidate Richmond Public Schools with Chesterfield and Henrico into one, big regional school district. A local district judge actually ordered that, but the Supreme Court struck it down. Here’s VCU professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley.
Genevieve Siegel-Hawley: “So the Supreme Court split four to four. We were one vote shy of a broad metropolitan school district in the Richmond area.”
Pauly: And actually one of the justices, Lewis Powell, recused himself from a vote because he said it would be a conflict of interest, since he was a former Richmond School Board chair.
Evans: Wow, very close. And what would it take if districts decided they wanted to do this today?
Pauly: So it would take a lot to make that happen in Virginia. Just using Petersburg and Colonial Heights as an example here, according to the State Constitution, both school boards would have to vote to support consolidation. Then, it would go to Petersburg’s city council and Colonial Heights Board of Supervisors for approval. That would go to the Virginia Board of Education, and even then, Virginia’s General Assembly would also have to support it.
But it has happened. So it’s not completely out of question. In the 1950s, Williamsburg merged it’s school division with James City County. They’re still separate localities, but they have one school district and one school board.
Evans: Got it. Thanks Megan.