The Legacy of Jim Crow

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FARMVILLE, Va. — Parents here are literally begging the Prince Edward County supervisors to increase property taxes next year to make up a $2 million shortfall in the public school budget and prevent teacher layoffs. But none of them are surprised that the supervisors have said no.

Over the past 60 years, this county government has been notoriously cheap, especially when it comes to paying for public education. In fact, the supervisors’ opposition to higher property tax rates has proven to be the most enduring remnant of the old Jim Crow era. This is, after all, the only local jurisdiction in the United States that actually abolished public education for five years – between 1959 and 1964 – to delay racial integration of the schools.

Dozens of parents and teachers showed up at the supervisors’ meeting on April 17 in what they already knew would be a futile effort to change the county’s reputation.

“This is becoming an ‘us-against-them’ community again,” Barbara Arieti, a school counselor, warned the supervisors. “I don’t know why you can’t grasp the concept of ‘we.’ ”

The Rev. Samuel Trent, also a parent, reminded the supervisors that “Prince Edward is a school that nobody wants to send their children to.”

Not one person spoke out against an increase in property taxes. Carolyn DeWolfe, whose grown children were educated in the local public schools during the 1970s, said that pleading with the supervisors for more money for public education has often been considered “a rite of spring” in this rural south-central Virginia community. Parents’ and teachers’ efforts in the past two years have been based on the need to make dramatic improvements at the high school, which in 2010 was officially designated as one of the lowest-performing schools in Virginia.

Meeting to discuss the budget again one week after hearing the testimony of teachers and parents, the supervisors explained that they were against a tax hike because many local taxpayers could not afford to pay it. Vice Chairman Howard Simpson said the schools always have had the funds “that the board thought they have to have.”

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