A pole in the middle of each classroom helps hold up the ceiling, a reminder that the 70-year-old building has been condemned for five years as a safety hazard. There are 825 children in a complex designed to hold about 400, so the auditorium has been partitioned into four makeshift classrooms and there's a fifth classroom backstage.
Outside, there is no playground or grass, only a pockmarked parking lot where children play kickball while avoiding puddles. The old coal furnace has no thermostat and there is no air conditioning; the building is stifling hot in both summer and winter. When it rains, the roof leaks and the basement, which also contains classrooms, floods.
This is Pennington Gap Elementary School, five miles from the Kentucky border in Lee County, one of Virginia's poorest counties, located 500 miles from Washington in the state's southwestern toe. School officials here and in neighboring Scott County say they are shamed by the physical condition of their schools.
"It's a disgrace that children have to go to school here," says Robert Mullins, Pennington Gap's principal. "In terms of physical facilities, these have to be the worst schools in the state," says Lee County school superintendent Robert McCoy.
Each year, the legislators from Lee and Scott counties try to aid the schools here by offering bills before the General Assembly to raise local cigarette taxes by 2 cents a pack. McCoy and his Scott County counterpart, Fred Fugate, travel 400 miles to Richmond, bearing Polaroid prints of their worst classrooms and pleading with members of the House Finance Committee for help.
But each year, the bill dies in committee after lawmakers and lobbyists from the state's influential cigarette lobby--tobacco farmers, cigarette manufacturers and labor unions--warn it could be the first step in destroying Virginia's key cash crop.
"We're dead from the word go," says Del. Ford Quillen of Scott, who plans to try again this year. "They always tell me, 'Quillen, we'd like to help but if we do this for you we'll have to do it for everybody,' and then they kill it."
Says McCoy: "When they put the needs and welfare of children below that of cigarette smokers, well, that tells you something about a society."
No one disputes the fact that the schools here need help. The coal boom that enriched neighboring counties over the last decade never came to Lee and Scott counties, whose coal seams are either nonexistent or too deep to justify extensive mining. With a per capita income of $5,202 according to the most recent data, Lee ranks 131st among the state's 136 counties and cities. Scott ranks 104th. By contrast, Northern Virginia's affluent Arlington County has a per capita income of $16,027, three times as high as Lee.
Hardship is evident on a drive along the long, winding roads. There are no shopping centers here and no factories, only modest houses and occasional shacks. Neither county has a sewage system and the only four-lane road was built not with state funds but with federal money from the War on Poverty era. Unemployment was in double digits most of last year and those seeking work often wind up 20 miles south in thriving Kingsport, Tenn., an industrial town where there is no state income tax and where a new high school with modern classrooms and a first-rate gymnasium just opened its doors.
The schools of Lee and Scott boast no such amenities. The worst are like those of Pennington Gap, outdated and overcrowded. The fire escapes at Shoemaker Elementary School in Scott are bolted to brick walls that are cracking and officials concede they might prove unreliable in case of an emergency. Special education classes are held in a windowless basement that teacher Martha Vermillion says is "like being in a dungeon."
At Dungannon Elementary School, 25 miles north, three-foot plaster chunks have fallen occasionally from the leaky ceiling, which is patched with plastic bags and tape. The library at Jonesville Elementary in Lee County is crammed into a storage room that was once the pantry for the cafeteria. A class of 25 third graders meets in a windowless basement that used to be the coal storage room. The air there is thick with the odor of coal dust from the blazing furnace next door.
Physical facilities aren't the only shortcomings. At Dungannon, kindergarten teacher Martha Hillman says she gets only $2.50 a year per child for classroom materials such as crayons, pencils and paper. She asks parents to contribute $10 per child, but says half of her class comes from families too poor to help. "We have to beg, steal and borrow whatever else we can."
Federal cutbacks threaten to make school life even tougher. Lee lost $170,000 in federal aid this year, nearly 10 percent of its previous total. A 30 percent cut in Title I funds meant Scott had to drop 18 of its 38 teacher aides.
Lee and Scott have few options open to them in finding more school money.
Both counties already charge the maximum sales tax allowed by state law and rank among the state's highest in their property tax rates. But they lack the shopping centers and office complexes that make property taxes in affluent areas such as Northern Virginia a prime source of school money.
Quillen tried last year to convince the assembly to enact a stiff tax on the oil and natural gas leases that speculators are purchasing throughout Southwest Virginia. But that bill was defeated in committee by oil interests whose clout is almost as strong as that of tobacco lobby.
School officials say they and their teachers struggle to do the best with what they have and there is a spirit of camaraderie between teachers and administrators that sometimes is lacking in larger, more affluent school systems. The bottom line is that only 31 percent of Scott's graduating high school seniors go on to college, while 79 percent do so in Arlington.
"If you start from the assumption that kids in Scott and Lee deserve the same start in life that kids in Arlington and Fairfax have, then something's badly wrong," says Quillen, a lawyer and a graduate of Scott County's schools.
Virginia's state government sets a minimum sum that must be spent on local schools--this year $1,185 per pupil--and funds most of the amount. But the mandated increase each year is barely enough to cover annual increases in teachers' salaries and no money is provided for new buildings. Quillen says he realized early on that Lee and Scott could only look to themselves for help.
One likely place was the state cigarette tax, which at 2.5 cents per pack is the nation's second lowest. Because neighboring Tennesee charges 13 cents per pack, the roads leading into Scott County are packed with gasoline stations and shacks advertising cigarettes at $4.59 a carton--about $1.50 cheaper than across the border.
"I wasn't out to kill the golden goose," says Quillen, "but I figured 2 cents would bring in up to $200,000 and we'd still be a lot cheaper than Tennesee."
Twenty-one localities--including Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria--are allowed to charge additional taxes ranging up to 10 cents per pack. But the tobacco interest-dominated House Finance Committee, through which all such proposals must pass, has not added a new county to the list in 10 years.
"If we open the door to one or two counties, pretty soon everybody will be asking for it and the poor tobacco farmer will be the one to pay," says former delegate Claude Swanson of Pittsylvania County in the heart of tobacco country. Before his defeat last November, Swanson helped lead the tobacco lobby, a diverse coalition that includes the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Tobacco Tax Council and the AFL-CIO.
Last year Quillen came closer than ever before, falling only one vote shy of passing the committee. This year, he will try to turn the opponents' main argument against them by revising his bill to include all counties, not just Lee and Scott, in an effort to gain more supporters.
Quillen says that of the hundreds of small tobacco farmers among his own constituents not one has ever complained about his bill. "Who are we protecting?" he asks. "I never can figure it out."