Photograph by Davis Burroughs School Districts See Change
Photograph by Davis Burroughs

Local leaders pushed for consolidation of two school districts.

RICHMOND – There are 132 school divisions in Virginia. By 2022, local leaders in Alleghany County and Covington City hope that number will decrease by one.

On Thursday, the local leaders and educational representatives asked the Virginia Board of Education to approve their proposal.

The Virginia Code allows school divisions to act on their own behalf, submitting consolidation proposals directly to the board. That’s the approach Alleghany and Covington took.

In a Nov. meeting, Dr. Leslie Sale noted that the divisions’ joint consolidation committee presented an in-depth proposal to the board.

Since then, Sale said the joint committee continued laying the groundwork for consolidation.

History Repeating for Alleghany

Three decades ago, the Alleghany school division consolidated with another neighbor.

“Minutes from the Board of Education’s Dec. 11, 1981 business meeting indicate that the last school division consolidation that we’ve seen, which was actually between Alleghany County and Clifton Forge, was formalized by the board through resolution,” Sale said.

Sherman Callahan, acting superintendent for Alleghany County Public Schools, also endorsed the plan.

“The merger of Alleghany County and Covington City has been a proposal for many years among the citizens of Alleghany County. With a continued decrease in student population over the last five to 10 years, both school boards and city [and] county administration felt that now was our best chance to make this a reality for our citizens,” Callahan said. “Combining both divisions would create a stronger community and expand learning opportunities for our student body while also consolidating many operational aspects, which translates into greater financial sustainability for the future.”

He also noted that the majority of constituents also supported the merge.

“For the most part, our community realizes it’s time for this consolidation. It has been talked about a lot longer than the 25 plus years that I have been here. We need to do what is best for our children moving forward,” Callahan said. “There are some opponents to the merger, which I understand as well. It’s hard to lose part of a school legacy and make this kind of change, but we plan to incorporate history and tradition from both sides in the new division.”

Expressing Concerns

Stephen Piepgrass, a partner with Richmond law firm Troutman Pepper, called the proposal “a consolidation plan that really makes sense.”

Board President Dan Gecker inquired into the consolidation. He expressed concern that if the board voted for the merger, but the General Assembly did not fund it in the way the consolidation group hoped, that the joint committee might step back from the change.

“My understanding is the Assembly is still in session. The budget is not decided. If we consolidate, you know, it takes a lot to divide it again,” Gecker said. “And I certainly don’t want to do something today that, you know, we’re going to have to play with undoing it if the Assembly doesn’t fund you the way you think they’re going to.”

Krystal Onaitis, Covington’s city manager, explained that the consolidation had two phases. First, they divisions hoped to consolidate administration. Later, they planned to combine student bodies, curriculums and extracurricular activities.

“From our understanding and what we would still plan on doing regardless would be working in earnest to still combine our administrations and then still continue to find ways to eventually get to combining the student bodies, as we recognize the need for opportunities for students, as well as the need for putting our limited local dollars to best use for our localities as well as our school systems,” Onaitis said.

She clarified that the divisions planned to combine administrations regardless of state funding. However, combining student bodies would require proper funding.

The Challenges

If the General Assembly did not vote in favor of the consolidation funding, Jonathan Arritt, Covington City School Board member and co-chair of the joint consolidation committee, noted that the decision would lengthen the merger’s timeline.

“The consensus from our local group is that the combining of the central administration, the combining of the two divisions, could happen on schedule,” Arritt said. “Of course the expensive work that we will have to do at some point is that salary and benefit equalization among our staff.”

Gecker still expressed trepidation over the issue.

“Honestly, I’m still a little bit concerned that I don’t hear the, sort of, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this regardless’ answer,” Gecker said. 

Jacob Wright, Alleghany County School Board chairman and co-chair of the joint consolidation committee, spoke up immediately.

“We’re going to do this,” Wright said.

Wright expressed that the group would make it happen, but the logistics still hung in the balance.

Piepgrass noted that the path Covington and Alleghany took could pave the way for other divisions interested in consolidation.

The Groundwork

The consolidation option didn’t insinuate overnight changes.

“Tentative timeline is to consolidate the administrative teams in the year 2022-23 and then merge buildings [and] students the following year in 2023-24,” Callahan said.

The acting superintendent also noted that the changes wouldn’t result in loss of employment.

“No one will lose their job,” Callahan said. “There may be some shifts in assignments, but that will be kept to a minimum and most circumstances will be handled through attrition.”

One of the larger alteration potentials came in the form of retirement planning, Arritt noted.

“We’ve chosen to implement an early retirement incentive program. Hopefully a well-funded one that will provide a win-win benefit both for the division and then also for the employees who are in that phase of their career,” Arritt said. “I think that’s where, if we’re going to talk specifics, the first part of that, if funding were to fall [shorter] than what we’ve requested, we would necessarily have to dial back certain potions of that. Obviously the early retirement incentive program would be among the first to be considered. And that would impact our future ability for how quickly we would be able to right-size the division from a staffing standpoint.”

Alleghany, Covington Make a Change

Arritt said that local leaders worked hard, going through many potential scenarios pending the budget approval.

Along with questions and concerns, the local leaders also received well wishes and words of encouragement from board members.

Gecker noted the challenge.

“I was a Board of Supervisors member in Chesterfield. I can’t imagine how you guys did this, honestly,” Gecker said. “We never could have done something like this. The discussion would have been so polarizing that, you know, it wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate. And so it’s very impressive what you’ve done. And we wish you the best of luck.”.

The board voted to adopt the resolution.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com