Alone in the Valley: A rookie Reporter in America's Divide
CHAPTER ONE January Controversy
Northern Virginia Daily
This letter addresses concerns raised against Larry L. Andrews, chairman of the group Concerned Citizens, in some recent articles dealing with actions on the proposed new schools. Being his children, we feel that we can best describe what he is truly like.
Let us begin by stating exactly what he believes in and what he does not. He is not against new schools, but he feels that all taxpayers and citizens of Warren County have a right to vote on the issue of new schools. Second, he is not against growing industry in Warren County.
Although he is a minister, he has never let religion and politics cross the same line. In church, he does not preach politics, and at Concerned Citizens meetings or Board of Supervisors meetings he does not preach religion.
We believe that everyone has a right to voice their own opinion, including preachers. It’s about time someone stood up for what they believe in and for the rights of the people.
Our dad loves people and he cares about their problems. He knows what a struggle it is for many of them to make ends meet. In forming the Concerned Citizens group of Warren County, he opened up the eyes of many people. He made them aware of how their tax money was being wasted and about the poor management of the schools.
We have attended public schools in Warren County, and we see firsthand how things are wasted and have not been properly maintained. No wonder there is no pride in our schools.
New schools are not going to improve standardized test scores or make students smarter. Only when students take pride in themselves will we see a change in the attitude toward our schools.
We don’t understand how teachers can teach about the Constitution of the United States and our rights, when in Warren County our rights have been taken away.
Our dad cares about the people of Warren County, young and old. We only hope that through people like him and the Concerned Citizens, Warren County will wake up and see how their tax money is being used.
The first time I met Larry Andrews, he showed me a pile of desks. Outside a small roadside storage building used by the Warren County School Board, the desks were heaped in a sprawling pyramid. They were the old student models with a wooden writing surface connected to a metal chair and an open space underneath for books. Peering from outside the chain-link fence encircling them, I couldn't see much that was wrong. But there they were, discarded from the schools, exposed to the January weather, waiting to be junked.
"I think the school board's definition of a taxpayer is a rich person," Larry said in a distinctive drawl, mellow and pinched at the same time. He was middle-aged and hale, with reddish-brown hair and a moustache. He led me and Alan, the Northern Virginia Daily photographer, through the underbrush around the fence to see the heap from different angles. I pretended not to care that I was wearing a short skirt, with pantyhose and shoes that could be ruined by thorns and mud. Gray stormclouds churned overhead, threatening rain.
"I have asked about this, and I've got no satisfactory reply. It's just incredible. It's apparent from looking at the desks there's nothing wrong with them. This is a public trust. Shouldn't they be sold at an auction? The first time I asked, somebody was going to look into it – three weeks ago. It's a sign of mismanagement. It's a sign of abuse. And it's the tip of the iceberg."
I looked for signs that Larry was wrong. A leg was missing from a desk here, a writing surface was cracked there. But the desks looked fixable. I had sat in grungier ones as a public school student myself. I asked what questions I could think of, and nodded along with Larry’s assertions to bring them all out. Alan hopped around taking pictures.
"Bureaucrats have very little comprehension of tax dollars...when it's not their dollar, and it's someone else's. Is there no other use for these desks than to be discarded in this fashion? It shouldn't be my responsibility to ascertain why these desks are here."
Apparently it had just become mine. Now I had to go looking for answers. We climbed up the rise to Water Street where Larry’s truck and Alan's were parked. "Some of us might have been born at night, but it wasn't last night," he said, capping his argument with a smile. That too was distinctive, a close-mouthed grin that rounded his pink cheeks and crinkled the corners of his brown eyes.
"Someone in your family go there?" I asked Larry at the edge of the road, pointing to the Liberty University sticker on the back window of his dark blue Bronco. Liberty was the conservative Christian school in Lynchburg founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell.
"My daughter. She wants to be a teacher, for some reason." With another grin, Larry got into his truck and drove off.
Back in the office of the Northern Virginia Daily, where the fluorescent lights blazed as dark fell and a drizzle began, I contemplated the school administration phone list, complete with home and work numbers, left taped on the brown fake-wood paneling behind my computer. I called Cal McCracken, the finance supervisor, at home. I called Mike Spory, who was listed as school board chairman, and I called school board member Debbie Barnett. I had not met any of them yet.
Cal McCracken told me selling the desks wouldn't raise that much money – the annual auction of similar items had made only $2,000 that past summer. And repairing the desks would be more expensive than replacing them.
Chairman Mike Spory said he was confident the desks were old and worthless. "They wouldn't be standing there if they were worth something," said Spory. He had an easy manner and didn't sound defensive. He also said that since many teachers had gone to "cooperative learning," the old-style desks didn't work: “They've gone to more of a desk or table," he said. A desk separate from the chair was better for pushing into groups. "The one-size-fits-all type of thing, that really didn't fit. My understanding is that most of those desks are not operable, or they'd be used."
"We're the only school system in the area where 50 percent of the buildings are 50 years old,” he went on. “In Page County, four of the seven are, but they're totally remodeled. None of the other school systems have 50-year-old schools that have not been remodeled. You know, one thing that never gets mentioned is that when Avtex closed, the county lost revenue, and the school board was told to cut its budget.” I knew next to nothing about Avtex closing, so that went over my head.
Debbie Barnett told me she thought the desk problem had been addressed.
"They were all sold at auction – now they've piled up again. What they're doing sitting there, I have no idea. I brought it up to the head of maintenance, and he told me they collect this stuff and then they sell it at auction. If there's so much of it, why isn't there an auction now?" Barnett said. "I keep asking, but I don't seem to get too much of a response. Somebody may buy those desks, if for nothing else, for scrap."
I hung up. Now I had a back-and-forth about a bunch of desks. The school system's head bookkeeper and its board chairman said everything was okay, and an activist – Larry Andrews – plus one board member said it wasn't.
Before I tried to make a story out of that, I wrote another article I'd reported that day, about two local men who made scented oil at a warehouse down North Royal Avenue and were going to have their bottled oils featured on a special "products of Virginia" segment on QVC. That was easier. Then it was even later and darker outside. Diane, the other reporter in the office, who'd just become bureau chief when my predecessor was fired, was getting ready to go. I couldn't seem to make a story out of the desks.
It was the Friday night of my first week on the job there, and as the second hand circled and the minutes clicked by on the old wall clock that hung above me, the fluorescent lights flared and my panic thickened. Diane came into my office before leaving for the weekend. She was an imposing, middle-aged redhead with a piercing gaze behind angular glasses.
"You should have done the feature last. Always do the feature last," she said.
"Just get something down."
Diane gave me a look, and left, mercifully, so I could be embarrassed by myself. I couldn't make sense of this measly story. The minutes ticked by into hours, as I sat and stared at my computer. I got up, walked around, gave myself pep talks, called my mother, breathed deeply to calm my racing heart. Wind whipped around the little building and lashed rain against the windows. I was bewildered and exhausted. Finally I tapped out a string of choppy paragraphs and called my editor, Joe, in humiliation to let him know the story was finished at last. He didn’t comment. It was past midnight. I drove home through the hard rain.
I followed Larry Andrews in the Northern Virginia Daily before I began work in Warren County. The “Front Royal” page was always on the inside cover of the newspaper, and what Andrews was up to caught my eye. "No taxation without representation!" shouted advertisements for meetings of the "Concerned Citizens." I knew nothing about the taxes or lack of representation, but I was excited by the thought of citizens getting organized and taking action, claiming a place in the governing process. A natural affinity for rebels also piqued my interest. Flashbulb-lit photos accompanying a story in early December were particularly dramatic. They showed Andrews addressing a group of 200 protesters filling the Warren County Courthouse lawn on a chill evening, just before a meeting of the Warren County Board of Supervisors.
The protesters disrupted the meeting that night, causing the supervisors to leave under the sheriff's escort only 20 minutes after the meeting began. The crowd had filled the small upstairs courtroom where the board held its meetings, spilled out into the hall, and shouted "Referendum!" whenever Chairman Staige Miller tried to assert himself. The supervisors wanted to discuss a proposed $34 million two-school construction program. (The board of supervisors had taxing and allocation power for all of the county, so it worked in tandem with the school board.) But the Concerned Citizens demanded to be heard before the board took any kind of action. They wanted a public vote on the issuance of bonds needed to fund new school construction, just as there had been four years ago, in 1991. That referendum, for a $21.1 million new high school, was rejected by 60 percent of voters. Now the proposal included a second school, which, along with rising costs, added almost $13 million to the price tag.
The next day, chairman Miller announced a public hearing would be held so that opponents of the proposed bond issue could be heard. "While I strongly disagree with the methods employed by the Concerned Citizens on Tuesday night, I do not disagree that they do have a right to be heard on this important issue," Diane reported in the Northern Virginia Daily. Up until the day of that protest, a man named Dennis, the Daily’s Front Royal bureau chief, was writing these stories. He had covered Warren County education and government for years. Then, I heard, Joe fired him on his birthday for not working hard enough. Diane took his place as bureau chief, and I took her place as the other reporter.
A few days later, the Concerned Citizens threatened that if county officials approved school construction funding without holding a referendum, they would elect people to the board of supervisors in next fall’s elections who would not pay back the money raised by a bond sale. The county's attorney warned that could destroy the county's credit rating for years. And the threat itself might be enough to drive away investors who would buy the bonds and thus provide the county with capital.
Just a week after its meeting was shut down, the board of supervisors cast a vote nonetheless – before a crowd of 200 – to seek professional financial advice on funding school construction. Of the five elderly supervisors, only one voted against it. That was Stuart Rudacille, who wanted an opinion from Virginia's attorney general on whether it was legal for the county to issue bonds given that a referendum on a similar project was defeated three years ago. He wrote to the attorney general himself, Rudacille said, and was waiting for a response.
Meanwhile, creation of another group was announced: BEST, or Better Education Schools Today. The Concerned Citizens claimed that they represented the majority of Warren County residents, but now BEST said its view was in fact the majority's: New school construction was needed and the county needed to pay for it. Robert Kellam, a black man who briefly served on the school board a few years back, was elected chairman of BEST. He said he would educate the public about the need for a school building plan.
Soon Larry Andrews and Concerned Citizens co-chairwoman Cindy Jenkins sent a letter to BEST inviting representatives to come to a joint meeting. They were inspired by BEST's shared concern about overcrowding and the need for school repairs. "We believe that between us we can relieve our fellow citizens of the galling antagonisms that so distress the community these days," said the letter, promising that the Concerned Citizens would discuss "all the actions we have taken and we're considering to restore the consent of the governed to present county rule." BEST never accepted the invitation.
These were the stories I glanced back at to prepare for switching beats from Strasburg to Warren County, but they only had so much impact. The emotion and rhetoric of the debate was much more intense in person, and it was only gaining firepower.
Soon after I began in Front Royal, a man who had the look I came to consider typical for the Concerned Citizens – older but active, in workclothes, with slicked-back graying hair and wrinkles cut deep from years of sun and smoking – gave me a clue to the number of layers in this argument, to the many real or imagined cross-currents of affiliation and hostility. He came into the Daily’s front office to buy a paper from the stand. I happened to be walking through, and he asked me if I was the new reporter in to take Dennis's place. He said word had it that Dennis was fired because he had written a story that was complimentary to the Concerned Citizens. I knew that wasn't true, and said so, but he hardly listened. He seemed to consider me a mere tool of some greater power structure, and didn’t even blame me.
The fight over schools and taxes that I suddenly found myself mediating was complex, I realized – and everyone involved understood its complexity better than I.
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