On April 1, the Commission on School Construction and Modernization held its first meeting to discuss issues related to K-12 school infrastructure. Funding for school construction and renovation is one of the biggest concerns and responsibilities of local governments in the Commonwealth, and research indicates that the quality of physical learning environments has direct impacts on the educational outcomes of students. However, many localities struggle to finance their share of the multi-billion-dollar backlog in school construction and modernization needs. In advance of the meeting, VACo sent the Commission a letter reiterating our long-held support for additional state resources and additional funding options for capital and school construction costs.
Created by enabling legislation from Senator Jennifer McClellan in 2020, the Commission is tasked with assessing the Commonwealth’s school facilities and determining school construction and modernization funding needs, identifying funding mechanisms, and making recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly. This is to include: establishing best practices in school modernization and construction for school divisions; creating standardized construction designs and procurement practices to recommend and make available to local school divisions; identifying potential cost-saving measures for implementation by local school divisions to minimize construction and modernization costs where possible. This is the third state study and commission within the past decade to examine this issue, following an effort undertaken by then-Governor Bob McDonnell in 2013, and more recently, a 2018 effort by the Senate Local Government Committee’s Subcommittee on School Facility Modernization. This latter effort was led by Senator Bill Stanley, who along with Senator McClellan is also serving now on the current Commission.
While more up-to-date information is needed, the fact that this issue continues to be a topic of concern for local governments and discussion by the General Assembly is revealing. According to the 2013 Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) study, more than 40 percent of Virginia’s public-school buildings and facilities were built at least 50 years ago, and another 20 percent were constructed at least 40 years ago. The condition of the facilities in which children are educated has a direct impact on their ability to learn. Issues like inadequate climate control, lack of modern electric circuitry and internet capacity, and leaking roofs can negatively affect student assessment performance and staff morale, as well as posing major equity concerns.
Updating information on and quantifying the scope of the K-12 facility needs will be one of the initial priorities of the Commission. In addition to voting to elect Senator McClellan as Chair, and Delegate Chris Hurst as Vice-Chair, discussion focused on the Commission’s workplan. Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane, who also serves on the Commission, was tasked with bringing information from VDOE and surveys from each local school division back to the Commission to identify the current scope of facility needs, information on potential correlations between construction needs and socio-economic demographics, information on capital expenditures made by local governments, including: standard lengths in capital improvement plans, local composite indexes for school divisions, school asset replacement values, local fiscal stress, as well as ability to raise local funds and debt capacity, and data on use of existing school construction financing resources such as bonding through the Virginia Public Schools Authority (VPSA). This information will likely be presented at the next meeting, likely to be held in mid-to-late May at a date yet to be determined.
Commission staff from the Division of Legislative Services also provided a brief overview of recent legislative efforts in the General Assembly pertaining to this issue dating back to the 2019 session. Most of these bills have been previously reported in various issues of Capitol Contact and VACo’s Legislative Summaries, however of particular interest to VACo was discussion of HB 1634 (Edmunds), which was legislation from 2019 that authorized Halifax County to impose an additional local sales and use tax of up to one percent, if initiated by a resolution of the local governing body and approved by the voters at a referendum. Revenue from the tax would be used solely for capital projects for the construction or improvement of schools. This authority has since been expanded to eight additional localities. VACo strongly supports expanding this authority statewide; however, legislation to expand it to a ninth locality during the 2021 General Assembly session failed in a House Finance Committee Subcommittee after passing the Senate.
VACo appreciates the attention of the Commission to this issue and stands by ready to assist it with any efforts that will lead to action by the General Assembly to provide additional state resources and local authority to local governments to ensure that we have the tools needed to provide modern and safe learning environments for students across the Commonwealth. More information on the Commission on School Construction and Modernization and a recording of the April 1 meeting can be found here and here respectively.
VACo Contacts: Jeremy R. Bennett