McClellan and Stanley: It’s time for bipartisan action to fix Virginia’s crumbling schools

By Jennifer McClellan and Bill Stanley
The Constitution of Virginia bestows responsibility on the General Assembly to provide a public school system for Virginia children, and “seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.”

But for too long, our commonwealth has failed to live up to this promise. We cannot maintain a high quality of education if we can’t even maintain our school buildings.

Each of us has led efforts to evaluate the condition of our local school buildings and find solutions to the long neglected — and growing — facility needs: Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, as chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, as chairwoman of the School Construction and Modernization Commission.

The resulting studies showed that more than half of Virginia’s school buildings are older than 50 years. Cost to replace these schools is more than $25 billion. That number will only grow, as Virginia’s public-school district maintenance and operations needs are underfunded by $527 million every year.

Working together, we have toured schools from Bristol to Hampton Roads and seen buildings crumbling before our eyes. We have listened to parents, teachers, and school administrators across Virginia — from rural Carroll County to urban Richmond City — and we have consistently heard concern about school buildings.

We have heard from local elected officials, particularly in economically distressed communities, struggling to fund school construction and renovation needs through the limited tools the General Assembly has given them — primarily property taxes.

And we have seen that according to the National Council on School Facilities and the 21st Century School Fund, while crumbling schools are a growing national problem, Virginia is one of the worst states in the nation regarding state contribution to school infrastructure.

Virginia falls well below the 22% national average for state contribution for school capital expense and debt service, even as some states contribute more than 50% of the expense. Virginia significantly trails neighboring states such as West Virginia and Maryland when it comes to state contribution to school construction.

Virginia’s school infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes, and it’s time for the legislature to act.

In this new divided government, Virginians are looking for results. One of the strongest opportunities for bipartisan action is in a package of bills to finally address our school infrastructure crisis.

In December, the Virginia Commission on School Construction and Modernization — on which we both serve — put out a list of seven recommendations for funding school infrastructure.

Working across party lines, the Senate of Virginia has passed five bills to implement those recommendations. Now, as these five bills move to the House, they represent a major opportunity for bipartisan action on our school infrastructure.

Collectively, these bills would represent a sea change in how Virginia approaches school construction and modernization. Too often, Virginia localities lack the resources necessary to fund major capital projects. This package of bills would provide dedicated school modernization funding from a variety of sources.

One bill, Senate Bill 472, will empower all localities to offer voter referenda on an up-to 1% local sales tax to be used only for school construction or renovation projects. Right now, that option is only permitted in nine localities — seven of which passed voter referenda.

Other bills would improve school construction funding by: creating a School Construction Fund and Program; allowing and incentivizing school boards to use unexpended funds to finance capital projects; and adopting changes to the state Literary Fund to make more money available to local school divisions through loans with lower interest rates.

The Senate also passed a bill recommended by the commission, which would create a data collection tool to assist school boards in determining which schools need repair and how to budget for the work.

These bills address a deep need across Virginia — in rural, urban and suburban communities alike. More than 40% of schools across Virginia are already at or above recommended capacity, and another 29% of schools are approaching capacity. The median age of a school building in Virginia is 52 years old; and Southwest, Southside and Western Virginia have the biggest challenge with buildings at a median age of 58 years old.

The condition of the facilities in which children are educated directly affects their ability to learn. Issues such as inadequate climate control, lack of modern electric circuitry and internet capacity, and leaking roofs can negatively impact student assessment performance and staff morale. And, as we’ve learned during the COVID crisis, antiquated HVAC systems can seriously impact student health.

These bills are a product of months of bipartisan collaboration and create an action plan for how to effectively address our schools’ faulty infrastructure. They are supported by the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League, Virginia First Cities, the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia School Boards Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, and others.

Our schools are where kids dream of their future and become equipped with the tools necessary to achieve their dreams. Now, we have the opportunity to take bipartisan action to provide our children with the school buildings they need to be able to learn. It’s time for Virginia to finally act and fulfill this promise to the next generation.