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Editorial: Improve Virginia schools

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Virginia Middle School

Virginia Middle School in Bristol, Virginia, was built in 1914. About half of Virginia’s schools are more than 50 years old.

As the gubernatorial election demonstrated, Virginians are passionate about public schools and want to see Virginia make strides to improve them.

One good place to start would be addressing the sad state of aging school buildings.

It was unfortunate that the campaign rhetoric focused more on culture-war issues than on providing modern, safe facilities. Neither Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin nor his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, spent sufficient time talking about where kids learn, instead arguing about what they learn.

Both are important, of course, but a failure to give both weight — in the campaign, in the General Assembly, in our communities — is a failure of leadership and vision. Virginia’s crumbling schools are a problem that gets worse (and more expensive) with each passing year, and it’s time our commonwealth demanded a thoughtful, workable and effective plan to pay for construction and renovations.

As long ago as 1996, a Virginia Department of Education survey warned that 63% of public schools were 25 or more years old and needed renovating or replacing. In 2002, a VDOE survey found that 65% of Virginia public schools were at 90% or more of capacity.

Nowhere near enough has been done. The most recent survey says that about 14% of schools are operating at 100% or more of capacity. Today, about half of Virginia’s schools are more than 50 years old.

School districts in Virginia will spend about $1.1 billion on construction this fiscal year, but that’s not nearly enough. The VDOE estimates there are $25 billion in construction needs across the commonwealth. You can do the math.

Across the commonwealth, schools just keep getting shabbier. They also have been getting more crowded. The pandemic caused enrollments to drop, but it also prompted new standards on distancing. Officials expect most children to return to school and enrollment soon to be growing again.

And while the pandemic spared facilities one year of wear and tear by students and staff, the elements take their toll, just as they do to homes and businesses. One can’t expect students to reach their highest potential in classrooms where the HVAC doesn’t work, the roof leaks or the floors are coming apart.

A major problem is Virginia’s approach to paying for school construction and renovations. Unlike most relatively wealthy states, Virginia puts most of the burden on counties and cities. Until the 2008 recession, the commonwealth had a few modest grant programs for school construction, but in recent years state help comes mostly through facilitating loans.

As a result, wealthier communities are more able to build schools or renovate older ones. Children in areas with more poverty — often areas with high minority populations — are more likely to be in outdated, crumbling schools.

Federal coronavirus relief funds have gone to such projects as enabling schools to increase social distancing and improving HVAC systems, but restrictions make it difficult to use the money for new schools.

A legislative commission is proposing a variety of solutions. One is to let localities impose a 1% sales tax increase, with voter approval, to be dedicated to school construction and renovation. Unfortunately, higher sales taxes are more of a burden on poor people.

Other proposals would increase loans and grants to localities and make it easier to use available state funds for school modernization. Figuring out where to get the extra money for new and expanded loan and grant programs will be a challenge.

Gov. Ralph Northam, in his final budget proposal, would put $500 million toward school construction, to be distributed through grants. But there’s no guarantee that plan will survive the budget process, that the incoming governor and legislature will direct. It remains to be seen how the new legislature will deal with proposals to increase the state’s role in paying for school construction and renovation

The needs are great and urgent. Partisan disagreements over how schools operate and what they teach will continue. But Virginians should unite in the cause of providing modern, well-maintained schools for all our children.

— The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board

— The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board


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