Legislators tolerate asbestos, rodents in schools instead of helping build new ones

February 27, 2023 12:02 am

“'No new taxes' makes for a great bumper sticker and campaign prop. That mantra, though, doesn’t pay for the many new schools we need around the state," writes columnist Roger Chesley. (Chesterfield Public Schools)

State legislators know Virginia’s aging schools are crumbling and need to be replaced – to the tune of $25 billion for K-12 buildings that are at least a half-century old. The General Assembly’s own ad hoc Commission on School Construction and Modernization said so about the 1,000-plus structures around the commonwealth. 

Here’s what children face every day:  

There’s a leaky roof, aging HVAC system, few windows and a foreboding feeling of darkness at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville. Plumbing problems and outdated bathrooms greet youngsters at Westside Elementary in Isle of Wight County, a schools spokesperson told me; parts of the building date to 1928, a year before the Great Depression hit.  

Pests and leaky ceilings hinder learning at George Wythe High School in Richmond. Moisture, radon and asbestos plague the schools in Bristol, where at least one building is more than a century old.  

These aren’t conditions schoolchildren should have to confront every day. They should focus on learning, not dodging rodents and smelly water. 

Lawmakers also know the money the state has allocated to help school divisions build anew is chump change. Legislation passed last year provides $1.25 billion in a mix of grants and loans. That amount includes $450 million for high-need schools’ construction, expansion and modernization projects.  

The loans must be repaid, by the way – no easy task for some divisions. 

The price tag for new buildings with up-to-date technology can be staggering.  One report notes that the cost to build the new George Wythe High School has ballooned; the facility, which will educate 1,800 students, will cost $154 million.

Localities face the primary responsibility for building new schools and handling major renovations on existing ones in Virginia. No one disputes that.  

Yet the commonwealth should help out, given the ongoing backlog. Current state construction funding, while welcome, is akin to offering a thirsty man a single drop of water. The gesture makes the giver feel better, but it doesn’t solve the emergency.  

Here’s where political philosophies hinder practical solutions. Republicans generally believe in tax cuts before all else. They also oppose attempts to raise taxes, even when the need is documented and the revenues are earmarked for specific services.  

It’s even more absurd that a handful of communities already can raise state taxes for school-building after they won Assembly approval.  

That fact doesn’t seem to matter to Republicans, especially in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. They’ve repeatedly rejected providing that option to every locality. (In this Dillon Rule state, cities and counties must beg the legislature for approval of certain tasks. Lawmakers take delight in the displays of supplication.)  

Jennifer McClellan, the state senator elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last week, made the latest bid for school construction funding. The Richmond Democrat sponsored SB1408, which would’ve allowed every locality a mechanism to hold a voter referendum. If residents approved, the localities could’ve raised the sales tax up to one percent for as many as 20 years. 

The bill passed the Senate with some Republican support. A GOP-dominated House subcommittee, though, tabled it.   

None of the five Republican delegates who voted against it, including panel chair Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, returned my requests for comment. During a hearing, Byron said the aforementioned construction fund plus taxes from sports betting should help localities pay for new schools.  

McClellan, in an interview with me the day after her historic election to Congress, told me that gaming taxes aren’t enough because of the magnitude of the problem. “We need a full menu of options,” she said. 

That’s clear. Besides, every year of delay tends to increase construction costs. 

The congresswoman-elect also noted that the state refuses to give cities and counties the tools to help themselves – except for the nine localities that were earlier granted that ability. “We need to give it to all of them,” McClellan told me.  

Otherwise, localities usually have to rely on local real estate taxes to pay for school construction. The problem is, that source of funding has to pay for a whole slew of other services, too.  

McClellan has a first-hand view of the challenges. She’s the chair of the Commission on School Construction and Modernization. The funding bill she sponsored is one of the commission’s recommendations.  

McClellan was also part of a team that included Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, that toured distressed schools around the state. She readily ticks off some of the problems she saw in various schools: Rats had eaten through a wall to get to a pantry. Electrical wiring had caught fire. Schoolkids put out buckets to catch water from leaky roofs. 

I understand Republican Gov. Youngkin wants to burnish his tax-cutting prowess and conservative bona fides. Republicans in the Assembly want to support his course of action. Democrats would do the same if someone in their party was governor. 

The need to pay for school construction isn’t going away, however. Instead of engaging in nonsensical debates about menstrual tracking apps, or demonizing the books that school divisions use, legislators should help localities help their students.  

“No new taxes” makes for a great bumper sticker and campaign prop. That mantra, though, doesn’t pay for the many new schools we need around the state.

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]