With its peaked roofs, prairie-style windows and earth-toned stained glass, the elementary school — situated on the poor side of town — bears the hallmarks of the architect who inspired its design: Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yet the soon-to-open Roanoke Academy for Mathematics and Science Elementary School is more than eye candy.
What other elementary school, especially one where 98 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches, has a greenhouse? And halls that look like downtown streets, complete with replicas of those old-timey gas lamps?
But, after all, this is Virginia, where the lottery has pumped $2.12 billion into public schools since 1999. Surely proceeds from Mega Millions, Cash 5 and Lotto South games made possible this diamond-in-the-rough.
Not necessarily. Roanoke City Public Schools expects $1.7 million from the lottery this year, a fraction of the magnet school’s $13 million cost, according to Ken Mundy, the system’s money manager.
There in lies the reality of the lottery (which, based on recent movements in the North Carolina legislature, soon could be coming to a convenience store near you):
Sixteen years after its inception in Virginia, the lottery isn’t the great savior of public education its supporters had envisioned. Nor has it led to the poverty among lottery players that its detractors had predicted.
The lottery’s influence in Roanoke, as it would be in North Carolina, lies somewhere between those two extremes.
In Roanoke — a city with roughly the population of High Point — the games are so entrenched in the culture one has to drive the town end-to-end to find a couple of billboards advertising the games.
The lottery’s influence is subtle, something locals take for granted. As they do in West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina — most everywhere but North Carolina.
“Why not (start a lottery) in North Carolina? Everyone else is doing it,” said Richard Newman, who bought $4 worth of tickets at the EZN convenience store in nearby Vinton.
On April 6, the N.C. House narrowly passed legislation that would allow a lottery in North Carolina, a state encircled by lottery-playing states. The bill is in the Senate, but there has been no timetable set for a vote.
Under the House version, lottery revenue would be split three ways: 50 percent for prizes, 16 percent for administration and 34 percent for state education expenses.
The state’s portion, projected at $400 million to $450 million, would be set aside not only for school construction but college scholarships and an “education enhancement fund” controlled by the General Assembly.
Some of that money could pay for reduced primary-grade class sizes and expand pre-kindergarten programs.
Virginia has dedicated all its share to public schools since 1999. Roanoke schools use their portion to help build new schools or, more often, to repay debt on completed projects.
It’s not a cure-all, but it helps, Mundy said. This year, the schools will spend more than $6 million repaying its debts. The $1.7 million the system receives from the lottery amounts to nearly a third of that cost, he said.
“That is the direct impact (of the lottery),” he said.
Still, no schools in Roanoke were built entirely with lottery money, another sign of its subtle influence.
And few, if any, support groups exist for people who have become addicted to the games.
David Carnes, who leads two Gamblers Anonymous chapters in Richmond, said his organization used to have a support group in Roanoke.
It closed a few years ago because of a lack of participation, he said.
A reformed gambler, Carnes said North Carolinians should worry about the impact of a lottery.
“It’s going to drown the poor,” he said. “A person will pay his bills and have 20 bucks left, and it will go to the lottery.”
That’s no more evident than in Sky Mart, a cramped curb market in the poorest part of Roanoke. Customers stream in one by one, spending as much as $20 on a single purchase of lottery tickets, as Bertha Brooks did Wednesday.
She filled out her cards at a small table facing the front window — nothing like those mammoth counters offered at the convenience stores that border the North Carolina line.
Brooks agreed to let a photographer take her picture while she filled our her cards, thinking it would bring luck to her otherwise fruitless attempts at instant wealth.
On a regular day, dozens of people like Brooks take their chances at Sky Mart, where average daily ticket sales range from $1,000 to $1,200. Zala said she sold $1,700 in tickets and scratch-offs Tuesday, when the “Mega Millions” kitty held $120 million.
“A lot of people think this is a lucky store for them,” said Zala, whose cut of the store’s lottery sales will top $120,000 this year if the average holds.
Sales show no sign of weakening. Neighborhood folks cash their paychecks at Sky Mart and spend the lot on beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.
That’s the kind of behavior that concerns conservative leaders such as Barney Arthur, whose Concerned Christians of the Valley advocacy group opposes the lottery. Arthur bristles at the notion that one might get “lucky” playing a game such as “Mega Millions,” where the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 135,145,920.
“That is a pipe dream,” said Arthur. “Your chances of getting lucky are absurd.”
He calls the lottery “the slippery slope of moral decay,” an entry point to other vices that will lead to “no less than total chaos.” But he can point to no evidence that the games have broken families or increased crime in southwest Virginia.
“I reckon I just don’t comprehend the mind-set,” he said.
Sixteen years after the lottery’s arrival in Virginia, Arthur and his group have given up the anti-lottery protests. Instead, Concerned Christians of the Valley has turned its attention to the off-track betting parlor that opened in Vinton, which borders Roanoke’s east side.
For Arthur and his colleagues, the lottery greased the “slippery slope” that allowed Colonial Downs to open a new “satellite wagering” center for horse racing near a local strip mall.
Voters in Vinton approved the parlor, which is expected to bring about $190,000 free and clear to the town annually.
People from across the valley gather at the site, betting on races shown on dozens of television screens.
Workers say as many as 300 people gather there on Saturdays, cheering their horses, sipping beer and mixed drinks.
Colonial Downs regular Buck Moore quit playing the lottery a few years ago, when he missed a $13 million jackpot by one number.
But he’s not against the principle — taking a risk, playing the odds. And he certainly doesn’t believe the games have led to widespread corruption, at least in places where it didn’t already exist.
“I just don’t think you’ve got people out there going hungry from playing the lottery,” said Moore, a retiree from Roanoke.
“Worry about the lottery (in North Carolina)? Naw, worry about the politicians and what they’ll do with the money.”