If it won’t help, the legislature should get out of the way on school construction

February 3, 2022 12:03 am

A tour of the construction of the new Highland Springs High School in Henrico, estimated to cost about $80 million. (2021 photo Henrico County Public Schools)

Virginia’s plight of crumbling school buildings – more than half of them are at least a half-century old – has been well-documented. The problem isn’t new, either. 

A General Assembly commission studying public school construction and modernization, in a report last year, said the total replacement cost for the 1,000-plus buildings over 50 years old is nearly $25 billion. 

Tours by legislators during the past decade found unacceptable conditions – a collapsed 750-pound section of an auditorium ceiling in Norfolk, for example, or air ducts that operated so loudly in Portsmouth they competed with the voices of educators. Expensive overhauls are needed at Waynesboro High School, which opened in the late 1930s. Many schools have worn-out HVAC systems.

So you’d think Republicans and Democrats would support a proposal allowing localities to raise their own sales tax rates by a penny, and earmark the money for school construction and major renovations. The communities would have to first get voter approval in a referendum. 

Nine localities already have this authority, and several have used it. But current legislation would cover the entire commonwealth. 

A bipartisan group in the Democratic-controlled Senate easily passed SB472. A Finance subcommittee in the GOP-controlled House, however, spiked a similar bill by a 5-3 vote. Members wouldn’t even let the issue reach the entire committee. 

Del. Sally Hudson is a Charlottesville Democrat and sponsor of the House bill. Hudson, who sits on the Finance subcommittee, told me the panel rejected the plan last week despite support from local government organizations, school groups and individual communities. 

“Not a word was said” in the subcommittee about why the plan was rejected, Hudson noted. “We’ve seen that this local authority is popular when communities have it.”

Of course it is. Parents and local leaders want their schools to be the best and provide top opportunities for children. They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is to update and overhaul aging facilities. 

Such an issue, however, doesn’t ignite the passions of voters. Nor does it exploit their ignorance.

So instead, new Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed executive orders on Inauguration Day demonizing critical race theory and ending “inherently divisive concepts,” as well as terminating mask mandates in schools during the ongoing pandemic. The legality of the latter is being challenged by school divisions and others.

Curiously, the executive order about masks – part of the ongoing culture wars nationwide – starts by “reaffirming the rights of parents in the upbringing, education, and care of their children.” The ability to upgrade schools in a fiscally responsible way, seems to me, should be among those “rights of parents.”

Yet the guv has said little about the sales-tax legislation or the long-running problem of school modernization. I asked Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Youngkin, about the issue and whether the guv would lead a campaign on raising money for modernization this way. 

“The governor will review all legislation that comes to his desk,” she replied by email.

The non-answer does nothing to indicate what Youngkin will do on such a serious matter. The obvious lack of specifics is noteworthy, especially since he was so vocal on other educational topics.

Let me provide a brief history on school construction in Virginia. 

Localities have borne the brunt of the cost since at least the 1930s. A state document, citing a report by Virginia’s government watchdog, notes that “with passage of the Byrd Road Act, the state took over responsibility for county road construction with the understanding that localities would be primarily responsible for school construction.”

Cities and counties, though, must get approval for many spending and other initiatives from the General Assembly, since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state. This paternalistic form of government limits what individual municipalities can do, while inflating the egos of the 140 lawmakers who convene in Richmond and say “nyet” – often without explanation.

I tried, for instance, to interview two of the subcommittee Republicans who voted against the House bill. Kathy Byron, of Bedford County, is the subcommittee chair, and Roxann Robinson, of Chesterfield County, is the overall Finance Committee chair. 

Neither returned my requests for comment about their recent votes – or what localities should do instead to pay for expensive school construction and renovations.

Cities and counties have greater control over how they spend revenues from real estate taxes. Some localities, though, have pretty much maxed out their usage since so much of their property is non-taxable. That’s often because governmental entities are housed within their boundaries and don’t pay real estate taxes. Portsmouth and Norfolk are just two examples statewide. 

Meanwhile, the need for newer buildings with the latest technology won’t abate anytime soon. 

The 2021 report released by the state’s Commission on School Construction and Modernization showed Virginia’s population will grow 4.7 percent by 2026, though some parts of the state will lose residents. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, chairs that state commission and sponsored the Senate version of the school funding bill.

That panel adopted several recommendations in December. Besides the legislation I’ve discussed, one suggestion is to amend the state code so school boards could finance capital projects with any money appropriated that’s left over in a given year. In the past, controversies have arisen between school boards and city councils when this happened. 

The pending legislation on the sales tax could still get to the governor, if the Senate bill survives following crossover. Del. Hudson is hopeful, but cautious. The House’s rejection “effectively handcuffs communities that want to invest in their schools.”

It shouldn’t be that way. If the General Assembly won’t raise the money, lawmakers shouldn’t prevent localities from doing so themselves. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]