The global economy has rocked the foundations of this rural Virginia community—including its schools.
The sewing rooms hummed and the classrooms bustled for as long as anybody here could recall, as entwined in the landscape and memory as the railroads and rivers winding through these small company towns.
For years, the promise of a job in the textile and apparel mills was good enough to lure high school grads and fresh-off-the-farm tobacco growers, who came looking for steady paychecks and found them, spinning yarn, stitching cuffs, and dyeing lots, day after day, shift after shift.
With time, and tons of fabric and cloth, they spun an outsized reputation for this otherwise out-of-the-way region, earning anonymous spots like Martinsville (pop. 15,416) brash titles like the “Sweatshirt Capital of the World.” But by the mid-1990s, thousands of workers in Henry County had seen their last shift.
The industry giants that helped power the local economy in this rural pocket of southwestern Virginia were unraveling, caught in the grip of forces conspiring far beyond the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As jobs in the textile and apparel industry began to vanish, generations of workers lost their economic foothold—and so did their local schools, which, like the families they served, suddenly found themselves scraping for cash and facing a future of sacrifice and uncertainty.
With the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and other pacts reshaping international commerce, clothing manufacturers in the United States were increasingly forced to compete with a flood of cheaper, foreign imports in markets they once dominated. Scrambling to cut costs, those American industries wound up eliminating thousands of the costly cloth-production jobs, or shipping them beyond U.S. borders—to Mexico, Honduras, wherever labor was cheap.
Sign of the Times: Henry County, Va., has lost more than 9,300 jobs in the past nine years. Not surprisingly, the layoffs have left homebuyers with many choices.
In Henry County, more than 9,300 jobs in textiles and other areas have vanished over the past nine years, in a county with only 73,346 people. The ranks of the departed included the sweatshirt and T-shirt maker Tultex, which declared bankruptcy in 1999, ultimately leaving 2,000 people out of work. Two years later, VF Imagewear announced plans to shut down most local operations, and roughly 2,300 jobs were lost, many of them sent abroad. Others joined them.
Some of the unemployed packed up and left, or started commuting to jobs well outside Henry County. Some found work locally, typically for less money. Many others are still looking.
But families weren’t the only ones to feel the sting of lost paychecks. The Henry County schools were forced to cut $1 million in spending this year, out of a budget of $61.5 million, after taxes the district regularly reaped from the textile mainstays dried up. And student enrollment fell to 8,371 this fall, robbing the schools of another $837,000 in state aid over the next year, records show.
With less money coming in, school leaders responded with a proposal to close at least four of the district’s 20 schools—only to have the plan fall apart in the face of furious opposition from students and parents across the county. But the budget knife had to cut somewhere. To make up the lost money, the district wound up cutting 54 staff positions this school year, including 36 teachers, out of 1,432 total employees.
And without new revenue, more budget pain is inevitable, schools officials predict.
“This is dramatic. This is catastrophic,” says Jim Beckner, Henry County’s assistant schools superintendent. “The current situation is severe because we’re being hit in so many ways.”
At its core, Henry County’s plight typifies the perpetual struggle of school systems and municipalities nationwide that rely on manufacturing and other industries for tax wealth, then suffer when those industries struggle or collapse. Over the past few years, the impact of those transformations on some communities, and their schools, has been particularly harsh. In textile hubs throughout the South, school officials who have lived through past downturns, like local leaders in manufacturing centers elsewhere, attribute many of their fiscal woes to the impact of globalization and free trade.
For years, students and parents in Henry County saw their schools as small, proud, and independent holdouts against the tide of layoffs and lost revenue. Now the classrooms offer no such respite.
At least 40 students at Laurel Park High School have seen one or both of their parents lose a textiles job. The school was one of those originally targeted for closure, but many teenagers there had weightier concerns.
Kristen Motley’s mother lost a job at a sewing plant, and her father left another textile company not long before layoffs hit. Both have found work since then, a 30-minute drive away in Eden, N.C., but it wasn’t easy.
“My mom, she was always on the phone, trying to call people and find work, sending out résumés, two a week,” says Motley, 15. “It was hard ... just seeing them stressed out all the time.”
Fabric of a Town
As pickups and new-model cars roar along Commonwealth Boulevard on a hot autumn weekday, Martinsville hardly resembles a struggling town. Traffic backs up along the hilly streets, and workers on lunch breaks pull into gas stations and fast-food joints, their windows rolled down, their FM stations piping out country.
But those who grew up here know the signs of decline, and what they see today troubles them.
Too many barren storefronts in the roadside shopping centers. Too many for-sale signs, planted in front of red-brick houses and ranch-style three-bedrooms. And too much talk of lost jobs, bills past due, and searches for work too far from home.
Ghost factory: Martinsville Mayor Gene Teague, foreground at right, and Tom Mize both used to work in this Tultex plant. The company declared bankruptcy in 1999 and eventually left Teague, Mize and 2,000 others without jobs. The property is being turned into a business center, and Mize is now the facilities manager.
Over time, this region’s economic identity has been continually torn and mended. There was a time about two centuries ago when, local lore suggests, the top industry might have been moonshining, but strong spirits soon gave way to sweet aromas. Tobacco ruled for the early part of the 1800s, and fields full of wide green leaves blanketed the countryside. But when cigarette and cigar making grew more centralized, many farms—there were nearly 500 of them in Henry County in 1850—folded, or were bought out.
By the turn of the 20th century, the furniture industry had begun to take hold. Big industry names, like Stanley and Bassett, set up shop in the early 1900s, building factories and towns to go alongside them. Many of those businesses remain today, despite layoffs in the world of living and dining room sets too.
The growth of textiles here began around 1920, as the industry started moving sewing and knitting operations en masse from New England to the South. Early pioneers were drawn by a large, cheap workforcewhich included many furniture workers’ wivesand the close proximity to rivers and the cotton market.
They included Marshall Field, who in 1916 started to build a mill on a rough stretch of land along the Smith River, outside of Martinsville. Within a few years, the plant, which would later become Fieldcrest Cannon, began churning out towels. Workers were paid in cash in small brown envelopes every Saturday, and the mill’s owners built houses for them in the nearby area, charging 25 cents per week in rent. Today, the town of Fieldale, population 929, still sits along that riverbank. And so does a mill, operated by the towel-maker Pillowtex, one of the last remaining textile producers in the county.
If the rise of textiles in Henry County was slow and determined, the industry’s tumble seemed sudden and unrelenting.
Overcapacity and modernization made some jobs obsolete; foreign currency crises cheapened the price of imported products. But NAFTA, which lowered tariffs on foreign goods, was the most recognizable villain to many who lost work.
“It is a dirty word,” says Gene Teague, the mayor of Martinsville. “It was a huge shock to everybody. Everyone knew something would happen, but I don’t think anyone realized how quickly.”
Textile production is the process of forming a fabric, by spinning yarn and dyeing and cutting material; apparel making is the sewing and assembling of the final product. Both processes are generally grouped together as part of the textile industry, but when NAFTA passed, the rules of the trade, particularly on the apparel side, changed dramatically.
Suddenly, clothing merchants were able to buy lower-cost products from abroad. For many American apparel companies, the labor pool in places like southwestern Virginia became a costly burden. U.S. manufacturers began moving sewing jobs to other countries, then shipping their finished products back to this country for sale. One-time hubs like Martinsville devolved into distribution centers, moving clothing throughout this country that had been made elsewhere.
The suffering was not limited to Henry County. Over a 12-month period from 2000 to 2001, more than 100 textile plants shut down nationwide, and 60,000 jobs were lost, according the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.
Pillowtex Inc. (Fieldale): one of the few textile plants in Henry County still active
Like some other observers around Henry County, Teague believes the forces gripping textiles probably would have caught up with the region sometime; NAFTA simply speeded up the decline. The 40-year-old elected official feels a kinship with many of his out-of-work constituents. He himself lost jobs at Tultex, where his mother and brother also worked, and then at VF Imagewear. The second company later offered Teague a job in Nashville. He even took a trip there to check it out. But leaving his hometown, where he has a daughter in high school, didn’t feel right.
Eventually, he found work as a customer-service manager with the distribution center for Nautica, an apparel company in Martinsville. He counts himself as lucky. Everywhere, companies were shutting their doors.
DuPont, which once claimed to operate the largest nylon factory in the world and housed a workforce of about 5,000 people, closed its operations in the county in 1998, after years of decline. Smaller companies like Pluma, which ran a sewing plant where Kristen Motley’s mother worked, declared bankruptcy in 1999, cutting 450 jobs. The loss of jobs at Tultex and VF Imagewear compounded Henry County’s woes.
But while NAFTA and other trade pacts hurt dozens of textile towns, they also spawned growth and jobs in other industries, such as telecommunications and computers, across the South and the rest of the country, says Ferrel Guillory, the director of the project in Southern Politics, Media, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Communites that subsisted on low-wage, low-skill labor for generations were being forced into painful transitions, he says.
“We’ve known for 20 years that the textile industry was declining under global forces,” Guillory says. “The trauma here is both personal and institutional.”
Global forces help shape the fate of municipalities and schools in other communities and other industries, too. This year in Illinois, the 7,463-student Granite City school district stood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars when the local steel company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Today, that mill is still running, after a restructuring and new steel tariffs that protect it from foreign competition. But it did not pay taxes this year to the city schools. Earlier this year, the state awarded an estimated $1.4 million bailout to the Granite City’s district, but the system soon could face a deficit of anywhere between $500,000 and $2 million, depending on future state aid, upcoming school contract negotiations, and other factors, its superintendent says. The district’s current budget is $51 million.
“Long term, I think the global economy is going to have disastrous impacts on districts like ours,” Granite City Superintendent Steve Balen says. “There are so many things we’re dependent on that we have no control over.”
In Henry County, two school districts were forced to cope with changes: one operated by the county, the other overseen by the city of Martinsville. The county so far has faced more dramatic cuts, but the city was by no means insulated.
Over the past three years, the Martinsville City School District, which has a budget of $19.8 million, depleted a $1.2 million reserve fund to make up for dwindling tax revenue. The district of six schools and 2,680 students is helped by a steady stream of funding coming from a local restaurant tax, and other investments by the city, its schools chief says.
But if the economy worsens, steep cuts in classroom costs are likely: With the reserve fund tapped, no cushion remains, notes Superintendent Ira Trollinger.
“We can absorb a few hundred thousand less,” he says, “but we can’t absorb a million.”
Resistance to Change
The Henry County district’s plight has been more immediate, and its potential school cuts more agonizing.
Dean Randall, the Bassatt High School principal, wonders if the community will recover, or ‘just basically decline to nothing.’
Its consolidation plans called for closing some schools, merging others, and moving some grades to different buildings. And the public’s reaction was swift, and overwhelmingly negative. Many black residents strongly objected, but so did many whites. Students on the east end of the county felt shunned, but so did teenagers and parents from the western areas. Bus rides of at least 15 or 20 minutes are a way of life for hundreds of pupils in Henry County, but many treks along rural roads would have gotten even longer.
Critics packed school board meetings. High school students left them in tears. Sheriff’s deputies stood guard. And school administrators were accused of everything from fiscal waste to racism. The plan had supporters, too, but many of their arguments were shouted down.
The resistance spread from living rooms and booster clubs to places like the Morning Star Holy Church, east of Martinsville. The Rev. Tyler C. Millner’s chapel graces the crest of a wooded hilltop known as Stoney Mountain, high above roofs and trees along the rural roads below, and normally as serene as sunlight through a stained-glass window. But not when it came to the schools proposal.
Many of Millner’s congregants are Laurel Park students and alums. To them, the school is one of the last remaining pieces of history they’ve got. Some black residents saw bias at work in the schools proposal, particularly because of its impact on Laurel Park High, which has a heavy minority population.
Millner saw it, too. He says county and school board leaders should step back and invite residents to help them craft long-range plans for coping with the district’s financial woes, and declining student enrollment.
“I felt like the [school] board was manufacturing the impact of school closings, to do what they wanted to do,” the minister says. “They kept talking about the numbers, but I didn’t believe the numbers.”
Enrollment in Henry County’s schools has dropped from 13,676 students in 1975 to 8,371 today, and it continues to fall. Superintendent Sharon Dodson has a penchant for speaking her mind, and when she talks about budgets, she doesn’t try to touch up her vision of the county schools’ future with soft tints.
Without more money, the district will have to close schools, or look for cuts elsewhere, she says. More teaching positions could be eliminated. Some upper- level classes, like calculus, might be offered only at certain schools (the district already uses distance learning for some courses). Other classes, like vocational education, and after-school activities, like drama, could be dropped.
Michelle Stegall, shown with husband, Robert, and her younger son, Evan, has a 75-minute commute to her new job across the state line at a VF Imagewear facility in North Carolina. Her other son, Shane, 16, says his mother is now the last one home in the evening.
Dodson isn’t sure how deep the fiscal scalpel would have to slash before consolidation becomes a necessity, not an option. But other pressures loom: The state of Virginia faces a $1.5 billion deficit, one of the worst fiscal crises in its history, and county officials fear their state aid will diminish.
“It’s going to have to impact children in the schools before the community supports what has to be done,” Dodson says of consolidation. “It’s going to be a very big issue. The rubber hasn’t hit the road yet, but it will.”
The county schools’ calls for more funding were probably not helped by the travails of former Henry County Administrator Sid Clower, a charismatic official who was charged in March with embezzling $778,000 in public finds. In June, Clower pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to 15 months in prison.
That drama aside, backers of school consolidation point to other statistics. The county’s high schools are currently holding only 50 percent of their student capacity, and the percentage of unused space at all the schools is even higher, Dodson says.
Bassett High School, a few miles north of Martinsville, would have gone from roughly 600 to 1,200 students under the consolidation plan, and it has the space to handle that doubled enrollment, Principal Dean Randall says. But the youngish administrator, who was raised just up the highway from the school, admits that witnessing the impact of the factory closings has been difficult.
His father worked as a weaver at the towel-maker Fieldcrest Cannon for 42 years, and his mother was a seamstress at Bassett-Walker, which later became VF Imagewear. The principal, who is 44 years old, estimates at least 50 students at Bassett High had at least one parent lose a textile job.
“There is a concern always in the back of our minds—what’s going to happen in Henry County?” Randall says. “Are we going to be able to recover, or basically decline to nothing?”
Laurel Park High School counselor Karen Cecil is used to hearing students talk, albeit reluctantly, about problems at home.
“They’ll say, ‘Well, dad’s sort of ill.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, what’s he ill about?’ ” Cecil says. “‘Well, he’s lost his job.’ ”
The stories have similar themes. Laurel Park junior Shane Stegall’s mother kept her job at VF after the layoffs, but was forced to begin commuting to another of the company’s offices in Stoneville, N.C. Each weekday, she rises at 5:45 for the drive that can take her an hour and 15 minutes each way.
“It’s just different,” says Stegall, who is 16, with a wiry frame and a close-cropped haircut. “Mom used to be the first one home, and now she’s the last one, at six-thirty, seven o’ clock. She thought it would be better to [commute] than to start over.”
Michelle Stegall began her career at VF in 1982 at age 20, measuring the number of garments other workers put in bundles. The job offered good benefits, and plenty of people vouched for it. Today, the 40-year-old credits her husband, Robert, with helping the family adjust to her new schedule, by driving their son to school and taking care of errands.
She is a Laurel Park graduate, class of 1978. Talk of shutting down her old school saddens her, but these days, everybody is sacrificing something, a point her teenage son makes some nights when they talk about what’s happened so far, and what’s ahead.
“I’d hate to see it close, but you can’t blame the county,” Michelle Stegall says. "[Shane] says that things change. And I said, ‘Oh yeah, life changes every day.’ ”
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Small World