Surry considers closing school

Published 8:11 pm Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Declining student population cited as a reason

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

SURRY — Faced with a declining school population and an aging recreational center, Surry County officials are looking to close one of its three schools and turn it into a community center.  

Surry Elementary School is being eyed for facility, according to a presentation made recently to the Surry Board of Supervisors.

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The elementary school ranked higher on a number of criteria as compared with the former LP Jackson High School site in Dendron, a site on the existing county school quadrant and the site of the existing recreational center on Enos Farm Road. 

The elementary school, with an enrollment of 320 students, is underutilized, according to the presentation.

The proposed community center, with an estimated price tag of $17 million, would include an aquatic center, a multi-use room and field house. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

A survey of residents indicated that an indoor pool, weight room, gym and indoor running and walking tracks were the highest priority, according to the presentation. 

To cover a portion of the costs, county officials point to other funding sources, such as grants and private donations. 

Some revenue could also be realized from competitive sports events, according to the presentation. It could also be used as a disaster relief center. 

Bacon’s Castle District Supervisor Judy Lyttle said the project is on the county’s “wish list,” given the other projects already underway, including the new rescue squad building and emergency operations center, the Dendron water system, the broadband initiative and the proposal for bringing a grocery store to Surry. Gray’s Creek Marina, another project undertaken by the county, is nearly complete. 

Residents are happy with what they have, but would be happier with more, said Lyttle.

On the other hand, Lyttle said the thought of closing a school is distressing, and wonders if a declining population would be able to pay for the construction and operation of a large-scale community center. 

The county is trying to think of projects that would encourage people to live here, she said. 

Surry’s existing recreational center was built in 1980. 

Dendron District Supervisor Michael Drewry supports the idea of a recreation and fitness center — particularly as an amenity that would be attractive to new residents — but stops short when it comes to funding the facility.

Adding a $17 million community center to the county’s already long list of capital projects is not sustainable without raising taxes, said Drewry.

“Funding is a big issue,” he said, adding he would like to see more residents involved in getting the project off the ground.  

Surry School Board Chairperson Elsie Dennis said it was too soon to comment on the prospect of closing a school to accommodate a community center, but the county must focus on what is best for the children.

The declining school age population is a concern for Dennis, but it’s not a school division-only problem, she said.

The decline stems from a lack of jobs, she said.

“When you don’t have jobs, you don’t have families that come in,” she said, adding that a lack of affordable housing and broadband are additional roadblocks to population growth. 

Dennis also thinks that contemporary families are having fewer children, which in turn, results in fewer students — not to mention an overall decline in population in the county. 

“I wish we could do better,” she said.

Surry County’s overall population fell 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census. Those age 18 and under represent 17.4 percent of Surry’s population, as compared to 22 percent in Virginia and 22.6 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Census.

On the flip side, adults age 65 and older represent 21.6 percent of Surry’s population, as compared to about 15 percent in Virginia and nationwide, according to the U.S. Census.  {/mprestriction}