Daily Press (Sunday)

Pandemic funds could help upgrade Virginia schools

Constructi­on costs for the fiscal year are estimated at $1.1 billion

- By Matt Jones Staff Writer

Virginia schools will spend about $1.1 billion this fiscal year alone on constructi­on, and those costs aren’t going away.

About 41% of public schools are at or above capacity, and half are over 50 years old. Replacing just those older schools could cost nearly $25 billion, according to a report from the Virginia Department of Education.

The study was requested by the Commission on School Constructi­on and Modernizat­ion, tasked last year by the General Assembly with making funding recommenda­tions for the state.

“Even if these estimates are off by 100%, Virginia still has a very significan­t school facility issue across the entire commonweal­th,” Bristol superinten­dent Keith Perrigan said Thursday in the commission’s second meeting since it was formed.

Virginia provides little money to divisions specifical­ly for school constructi­on, leaving the burden on counties and cities.

Districts carried nearly $7.2 billion in facilities-related debt this fiscal year.

Federal coronaviru­s relief funds, which can be used for projects tied to the pandemic, could help. Advocates have pushed the state to use the money for upgrades, but the funding comes with conditions that will make using it for new schools difficult.

One-time relief funding by itself won’t fix a decades-old issue. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, the commission’s chair, says their work this year is important.

“Right now, the condition of the building, like many other aspects of the conditions and the quality of education we’re providing, relies a little too much on ZIP code for our comfort,” McClellan said.

Growing population, aging schools

For decades, VDOE reports have found that Virginia’s public are crowded and aging. A survey conducted in 1995-96 found 63% of schools were more than 25 years old and needed renovation or replacemen­t. A 2002 survey found 65% of schools were at 90% or more of capacity.

The most recent survey found many of the same trends have continued. About 14% of Virginia public schools are operating at 100% or more of their capacity.

Although enrollment fell during the pandemic, dropping numbers to 2010 levels, state superinten­dent James Lane expects many of those students to return. Meanwhile, Virginia’s population is growing, particular­ly in Northern Virginia and along the I-95 corridor near Fredericks­burg.

The Weldon Cooper Center, which produces the state’s official population estimates, predicted statewide enrollment will increase 4% by 2026 and nearly 8% in Northern Virginia.

School buildings are also aging. The median age for school buildings statewide is 52 years old, but only about 15% of buildings have seen a major renovation since 2015.

About 78% Virginia’s schools comply with the Americans with Disabiliti­es Act requiremen­ts, based on informatio­n reported to VDOE by districts. Schools estimate it’d cost close to $205 million to bring them up to standards.

The state also surveyed most

districts about their capital improvemen­t plans, lists of major upcoming constructi­on and renovation projects approved by localities. Districts plan to spend over $7 billion building 81 new schools and renovating 566 in coming years.

But those projects aren’t equally distribute­d across the state between wealthy and less wealthy areas. No new schools are planned in western Virginia. In the southwest, where enrollment is declining as the population ages, only two new schools are planned.

“Obviously they have needs, but the locality is not even foreseeing the possibilit­y of a new school with their funding structure, so it’s not included,” Lane said.

The state historical­ly has played a larger role in funding school constructi­on. In the early 20th century, state funding was instrument­al in creating the modern system of public schools. But in the 1930s, the state put school constructi­on on localities in exchange for taking over county road constructi­on.

Several state grants, as much as $500 million a pop in 2021 dollars, helped fund a school constructi­on boom in the 1950s. But since the 1960s, the state’s focus has been more on facilitati­ng loans.

The few small grant programs the state ran for school constructi­on and maintenanc­e were cut after the 2008 recession. What

is set aside from lottery proceeds has to compete with other “nonrecurri­ng” priorities, such as school buses, technology and debt payments.

The Commonweal­th Institute for Fiscal Analysis, an advocacy and research organizati­on and one of the backers of the Fund Our Schools coalition, wants Virginia to go further than before the recession.

Chad Stewart, TCI’s manager for education policy and developmen­t, said Virginia is an oddity among states with relatively high median incomes. In neighborin­g Maryland, the state sets aside hundreds of millions to support school capital projects.

“What we’ve done before, the scale has been off for equitably and adequately addressing it,” Stewart said. “We need something substantia­l to really turn the state around.”

Where could the money come from?

In recent years, more localities have sought new revenue to support constructi­on. Some rural and lower income counties and cities have gotten approval from the General Assembly to hold referendum­s on increasing sales taxes to fund projects.

The Danville City Council green lit a referendum early last week.

The Newport News School Board approved a proposal last month seeking a law to allow all localities to hold referendum­s.

But expanding sales taxes faces hurdles. A bill to Isle of Wight County to hold a referendum didn’t make it through the General Assembly this year. Republican legislator­s have warned they might not approve future bills after the Gloucester County Board of Supervisor­s decided to use revenue from its sales tax referendum toward old school debt.

Rebecca Aman, a Newport News School Board member, objected to the idea during the board meeting on May 18.

“Just with the way Newport News has higher restaurant taxes than others, than surroundin­g localities, I’m concerned giving that latitude might lead to a greater tax burden on the community versus working with the city with existing revenues to get done what we need to get done,” Aman said.

Other advocates are also concerned that sales taxes are regressive. They take a larger part of lower-income people’s money, who spend a larger percentage of their money in stores and restaurant­s.

“The trade-off is the deeper impoverish­ment of the lowest income residents and communitie­s, with the benefit going toward students, particular­ly low-income students and students of color that benefit most from infrastruc­ture improvemen­t,” Stewart said.

Federal coronaviru­s relief funding has come up as another potential source, including billions coming to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act passed earlier this year. Some of the money could go to coronaviru­s-related school capital expenses, such as modifying schools to increase social distancing, replacing surfaces to make them more easily sanitized and repairing windows and doors.

One of the largest categories is HVAC repairs and upgrades. About 62% of districts have done some kind of HVAC project since the start of the pandemic, according to numbers reported to VDOE. Schools statewide plan to spend over $600 million in coming years in their capital plans.

But there are limitation­s. Although some of the money could go toward new school constructi­on, the federal government discourage­s it.

The money has to be spent by 2024. If a school district started designing a school tomorrow, it’d be difficult to design and finish a new school in that time frame. Using federal dollars also would subject schools to federal contractin­g requiremen­ts, making the projects more complex.

“The state does have to approve it, and we’re going to make sure they meet all compliance requiremen­ts and federal timelines,” Lane said. “But if they can do that, then certainly these funds are possible for those needs.”

The school constructi­on commission is due to submit a report to the General Assembly before its next regular session next year. Members briefly discussed a few ideas in Thursday’s meeting, like encouragin­g districts to share facilities and expanding loan programs, but a draft report is still months away.

It’s a politicall­y contentiou­s issue that’s not going away, according to Stewart. School constructi­on and modernizat­ion has come up on the gubernator­ial campaign trail. McClellan needled former Gov. Terry McAuliffe about the issue in a debate in Bristol last month.

“It is a very expensive problem, and very expensive problems have a tendency to get kicked down the road for a long time,” Stewart said.

 ?? STAFF FILE ?? Gloucester County’s only high school is among the many in Hampton Roads that needs extensive and expensive maintenanc­e.
STAFF FILE Gloucester County’s only high school is among the many in Hampton Roads that needs extensive and expensive maintenanc­e.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States