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Opinion/Commentary: Virginia has the ability to fix crumbling schools

Opinion/Commentary: Virginia has the ability to fix crumbling schools

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The school infrastructure crisis in Virginia is well-documented and longstanding. The most recent data provided by Virginia Department of Education shows that the total cost to replace schools that are at least 50 years old would carry a price tag of over $25 billion.

Unfortunately, school divisions that serve high-poverty communities are disproportionally represented in this data set. Furthermore, high-poverty communities often have fewer local resources to address the issue, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to increase local taxes on families who struggle to pay rent and who receive free or reduced-priced lunches.

Funding streams and policy options exist in Virginia to begin addressing these issues. Resources are not the issue; it’s political will that’s in question.

A new study put out by the National Council on School Facilities and the 21st Century School Fund shows that the issue of crumbling schools is a nationwide problem. Unfortunately, the same report declares that Virginia is one of the worst states in the nation regarding state contribution to school infrastructure. The national average for state contribution for school capital expense and debt service in FY2009-2019 is 22%. Virginia does not come close to this average contribution, while other states contribute over 50% of the expense.

Furthermore, the report identifies that Virginia’s public-school districts are underfunded by $527 million every year for maintenance and operations. This annual deficit will only add to the current $25 billion price tag in Virginia if federal, state and local governments don’t develop immediate solutions, especially for students and schools in high-poverty communities. This is not just an issue of infrastructure; it is an issue of equity.

Virginia has put many safeguards in place to ensure that students in different subgroups have equitable access to meals, special curriculums and Governor’s Schools, and even in performance and growth as measured by the state Standards of Learning. For example, the commonwealth has made modest strides in ensuring that high-poverty students have more educational resources.

Unfortunately, the only safeguard that students have in regard to building quality, safety, health and accessibility is the VDOE’s Guidelines for School Facilities. These guidelines “recommend” certain standards be met when old schools are renovated or new schools are built. Just like Virginia’s Constitution only requires that the General Assembly “seek to” fund an adequate education, these facility guidelines fall short of guaranteeing all students have adequate schools and classrooms. Furthermore, a locality must have the capacity to build or renovate to even consider the “recommendations” in these guidelines.

School divisions in Virginia have an interesting dilemma in how to respond to school infrastructure issues. School boards are responsible for cleaning, maintaining, renovating and replacing school buildings. However, school boards have no control over the amount of money they receive. Additionally, most of the funding school boards are given are restricted through state and federal mandates.

One tool that is available to school divisions in Virginia to address school infrastructure concerns is the Literary Fund. The Literary Fund is defined in Article VIII, Section 8 of Virginia’s Constitution as a permanent and perpetual fund that can be used to provide low-interest loans to school divisions, with Local Composite Index — which measures a locality’s ability, or lack thereof, contribute to basic education costs — as a condition of award.

Any amount in the fund above $80 million may be used for other purposes, including the teacher retirement fund. In the past five years, only six school divisions have accessed this option of low-interest loans, while $790 million has been appropriated to the teacher retirement fund during that same period.

The Literary Fund should be prioritized for school infrastructure, specifically school construction grants.

With a recent proposal put forth by Sen. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, the federal government is on the cusp of taking on a portion of school infrastructure expense. Additional federal dollars could be available if school infrastructure funds survive the chopping block of Congress’ budget reconciliation process. Combined with the restricted ability to use certain recent federal aid funds for some school infrastructure projects, the federal government is at least acknowledging that the solution to the nationwide school infrastructure problem will take collaboration from all levels of government.

State governments, and especially local governments, are not exempt from this responsibility. Localities are typically doing the best they can by meeting match requirements, approving bond issuances or using creative ideas for generating revenue in localities like Halifax, Charlotte, Gloucester, Henry, Northampton and Patrick counties. Regrettably, the commonwealth is currently making no meaningful contribution to address this well-documented and longstanding issue.

Despite having the capacity to provide assistance to localities to improve school infrastructure issues, Virginia has not shown the will to help in this area in well over a decade. Virginia is rated as the best state in the country to do business, is among the top 10 wealthiest states, and had a surplus of over $2 billion last fiscal year. At the same time, the commonwealth is dead last in the amount we pay teachers, relative to workers with similar educational backgrounds, and not much better in how much we invest in public school infrastructure. Virginia doesn’t have an issue of ability; we have an issue of priority.

In the upcoming General Assembly, Virginia has an opportunity to take on a small share of the burden of our current crisis. First, Virginia should phase in minimum standards that ensure students attend school in buildings that are handicap accessible, safe, healthy, and conducive to a 21st-century learning environment. Guidelines, recommendations and a “seek to” mentality will only exacerbate the current inequities in Virginia schools.

Next, Virginia should restructure Literary Fund distributions in a way that encourages its use to improve school infrastructure and supports more of Virginia’s schools and students.

Additionally, Virginia should continue to expand options for creative approaches to support locality’s attempts to generate revenue.

Finally, Virginia should use a portion of the recent surplus, along with federal pandemic aid and other emerging funding streams from marijuana, casinos, and digital download tax revenue, to reestablish state support for school capital outlay on an annual basis.

It is clear that the school infrastructure problem will only be solved through federal, local and state collaboration. Public schools are part of the foundation of our communities, our commonwealth and our nation. Hopefully, the General Assembly demonstrates, during the upcoming session, the will to apply our significant resources to solve this problem, because Virginia cannot afford to allow this important foundation to crumble.

Keith Perrigan is president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia and a member of the Virginia Commission on School Construction and Modernization. He also is superintendent of the Bristol Virginia Public Schools.

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