The General Assembly keeps finding ways to not solve Virginia’s school construction problem

March 10, 2022 12:03 am

In Richmond, city and school officials have been sparring over construction of a new building for George Wythe High. (NBC12)

You’ve got to hand it to the 140 Honorables in Richmond. When presented with massive problems that require determined, disciplined, dedicated solutions, they often do far less than required. 

And then they pat themselves on the back – in constituent and campaign literature – proclaiming “everything’s fine!” and that they’ve fixed things. It’s downright nauseating. 

Here’s the latest display of fecklessness: When it comes to school construction and major renovations, General Assembly legislators know they’ve got huge challenges – even if they don’t face them directly. Localities have borne the brunt of school construction since at least the 1930s, and the state has handled roads. Nobody’s suggesting changing that system in Virginia. 

Meanwhile, the total replacement cost is about $25 billion for the state’s 1,000-plus public school buildings at least 50 years old. They’re aging even more each passing year, as school divisions and local officials try to figure out how to demolish and rebuild. 

So cities and counties should get to raising the money, right? 

Except Virginia, a Dillon Rule state, doesn’t allow municipalities much flexibility to do whatever they want. Localities have to come begging to the Assembly first. 

Senators and delegates are providing half-measures in response. Republicans are primarily the culprits here, after the Democratic-controlled Senate easily passed a sales tax plan to aid school-building. The GOP-controlled House rejected that idea. (Democrats, of course, had two years in power to find a solution for school construction needs but didn’t.)

Lawmakers have floated at least two alternatives, neither of which is nearly enough. The Senate plan proposes $500 million in one-time grants to school divisions. The House proposes nearly $542 million in a loan rebate program. All of this is tied up in budget negotiations between the two chambers as the Assembly approaches adjournment.

To put it another way, $500 million is just 2 percent of the $25 billion the state says is needed. It does little to solve the problem. If cities and counties end up with the loan program, they must identify a funding stream to pay back the debt. 

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

“The General Assembly has yet to reckon with the scale of this problem,” Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, told me this week. She sponsored a funding bill that died.

Legislators are coming up short at a time when, at Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s urging, many of them want to distribute major budget surpluses in the form of tax cuts

Some money should go back to Virginians. But we shouldn’t shortchange pressing priorities in the commonwealth, either. There’s money available to put a real dent in the billions needed for school construction and major repairs, including heating and cooling systems. 

Lawmakers could provide localities better tools to tackle the problem themselves. Attempts to create the previously mentioned statewide mechanism for communities to add a penny to sales tax rates failed this year. 

The sales tax strategy is a smart way for localities to raise money. Nine localities already have the ability to do so through legislation in earlier years. They also have to earn local voter approval through a referendum. Several localities have passed such initiatives, including Danville and Halifax County. 

For some reason, what’s good for the nine is verboten for the rest of the state. ‘Tis a puzzlement.

The sales tax is regressive, hurting poorer residents. That’s one downside. Yet it’s a way to bolster school-building. Groups including the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Education Association had backed versions of the latest sales tax bill this year.

Here’s what really gets my dander up:

State officials are aware of the magnitude of the problem. Lawmakers in 2020 passed a bill establishing the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, composed of citizens and legislative members. The commission will provide reports annually through 2026. 

You don’t create a body like this if everything’s fine. 

Commission members released a report in June on the enormity of the problem in Virginia, including deferred maintenance, the need for technology upgrades and school overcrowding in some places. All the lawmakers can read their reports. 

How has the Assembly responded? With proposals that are woefully inadequate. 

The new guv and his Republican acolytes have made big sport of the notion parents should be “empowered with open access to information on primary instructional materials” used in schools, and they have rights “in the upbringing, education, and care of their children.” I’m quoting from two of Youngkin’s executive orders.

That focus on education helped Youngkin win in November and for Republicans to seize the state House. But when Republicans had a chance to put more control in the hands of parents on an issue as important as school building, they said, “Never mind.”

So much for parental rights and self-determination.

The proposed remedies being bandied about in the Assembly don’t address the true scope of the problem. So don’t believe the false advertising certain to come your way later this year.

They’re not worth the paper – or internet links – they’re printed on.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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]