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Only in the movies / December 04, 2013

With Christmas blockbusters flooding the movieplex, chances are excellent we’ll soon enjoy the familiar cinematic spectacle of squabbling, disputatious countries that push their disagreements to the brink, only for mankind to unite as one after space aliens swoop in from the galaxy’s outer reaches and start blasting everything to bits.

Probably my favorite movie of this genre was “Independence Day” (a summertime release, naturally), which featured Will Smith chewing on cigars and the White House getting torched by a fleet of flying saucers.

At the end of the story, human civilization was united in its determination to build a decimated world anew, better than it was before. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a sequel in the works for 2014.

Stuff blowing up is easy to get one’s head around. Of course we would replace what was lost. Why not?

If it’s complexity you want, though, consider a real-life situation — say, aged school buildings that are falling apart, a “leadership class” that can barely bring itself to address the problem in civil and open fashion, and more of the same old, same old.

How many more days will Mecklenburg schools be closed this year because the pipes burst, the walls rot out, or some other problem cripples facilities that rightfully should have gotten their expiration notices sometime before Richard Nixon’s second term ended?

An assault by laser-firing spaceships would be an improvement over the decay and sense of denial that long ago invaded the halls of local government in Boydton.

But so it was on Monday as students, teachers and everyone else who should have been in the classroom got an unexpected “break” — a school cancellation day, owing to the fact that Bluestone High School had no, um, running water.

While we don’t know much about what caused the problem — Superintendent of School James Thornton’s open-door communications policy being about as sound as several county school buildings I can think of — we do know this much: Bluestone has experienced troublesome water issues before, and our cow-patch high school is hardly the most decrepit building in the county’s inventory of school facilities.

If anyone wants to get to work fixing this mess — a mass of decrepitude — there’s no shortage of places to start.

Trouble is, no one seems to be in much hurry to do anything. The School Board is Mecklenburg County’s answer to the Fight Club, members of the Board of Supervisors, as usual, are just a little too eager to use the trustees’ dysfunction as an excuse for inaction, and Thornton has become downright toxic in the eyes of some supervisors and members of the public who might sooner bow to space aliens than set foot in the Central Office. Meantime, the scuttlebutt is pointing to a harsh winter ahead — how many times have you heard that prediction ventured this fall season? And if it happens, what are the odds that rickety old Bluestone (middle and high school), Park View Middle and the dumpy, disgraceful trailer buildings that are still in use at county elementary schools emerge from the cold snap unscathed?

If the early returns out of Bluestone this week are any indication, it’s looking like a harsh, harsh winter indeed for Mecklenburg County schools and the children they’re supposed to serve. Maybe this latest facilities snafu will spur the trustees, the Central Office and the supervisors to speed up the process of building new schools. Or maybe Mecklenburg’s current leadership cadre will do what our elected and appointed representatives have done in the past — not much. It’s sad to think that the best we can expect is the appointment of another Blue Ribbon panel of concerned citizens whose recommendations for change can be safely ignored.

Then again, maybe the movies are the only place left where you can find heroes willing to set aside their differences and come together to save the day. Will Smith, we hardly knew ye.


It’s quite maddening that Mecklenburg County would continue to tolerate substandard school facilities — a failure that masks the better qualities of the public school division, and detracts from what should be a strong sales pitch by the community to the outside world.

After all, not many Southside Virginia counties can boast a strong technology presence, two beautiful lakes, an interstate and an interstate-quality four-lane highway, plus historic assets, parks, businesses, downtown districts, cultural attractions and everything else that together contribute to a nice community vibe.

Mecklenburg clearly is capable of forward-looking leadership, as evidenced by the impressive start for its tourism office under the direction of coordinator Justin Kearns. The tourism office is doing commendable work to improve the county’s marketing pitch to outsiders, more than a few of whom may opt to put down permanent roots as they learn more about the place. When they do, more often than not they will add more to the community’s well-being than a mere uptick in population.

Still: how many times do you figure people have considered moving to Mecklenburg only to be dissuaded by the condition of its school buildings? Is this point really arguable after all these years? After you strip away the usual excuses for inaction — personality disputes, political exigencies, special circumstances — what you’re left with by way of explanation is the county’s historical aversion to higher taxes. Yet how much tax base and potential revenue has Mecklenburg sacrificed by linking its image to school facilities that are nothing short of a disgrace? I’d venture the answer is a lot.

As this week’s events show, the county is prone to committing self-defeating errors despite clearly having the capacity to do better. If our young people made such mistakes, we might advise them to try harder in the classroom. It’s pretty hard to be serious with advice like that, however, when the adults in the room can’t even seem to get the school faucets to work.

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