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Discussion of Possible Public Referendum for Multi-Billion Dollar State Bond to Fund School Modernization

The flagship recommendation discussed by the Senate Local Government Subcommittee on School Facility Modernization is to hold a public referendum set for 2019 asking Virginians to authorize the General Assembly to secure a $3-$4 billion general obligation bond to fund school modernization needs across the Commonwealth. The Subcommittee discussed dedicating a portion of anticipated state revenues from internet sales tax available as a result of the Supreme Court’s Wayfair decision to provide initial financing for the bond. The Subcommittee weighed the implications of holding a referendum in a General Assembly election year and the political mandate for action to be gained if such a referendum were to pass. Any such proposal will need to be approved by the General Assembly.

The Subcommittee met on November 30 in Richmond to discuss a variety of potential recommendations for the upcoming 2019 General Assembly Session. Senator Bill Stanley, who created the Subcommittee earlier this year, discussed how the subcommittee was designed to examine the problem of aging school infrastructure across the Commonwealth and the Subcommittee’s recent tour of the state visiting schools and meeting with education stakeholders.

Many localities face significant challenges in raising sufficient funds to undertake capital school construction or renovation projects. According to a 2013 report, 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. Subcommittee members cited the example of teaching curriculum subjects such as cybersecurity in a Virginia middle school built prior to World War II with only one electrical outlet in it per classroom.

Subcommittee members also discussed recommending that the availability of any additional funds be done in concert with updating existing regulations and guidelines for school facilities to ensure that school security, equity, and facility longevity issues are addressed. Senator Barbara Favola suggested looking to the Virginia’s SMART SCALE process as a potential model. The Subcommittee also discussed the possibility of promoting use of Opportunity Zones created through the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 to incentivize investment in school modernization. The Subcommittee directed legislative staff from the Division of Legislative Services to work with Senators to provide final language for these recommendations before the General Assembly convenes.

Lastly, another possible angle of engaging the school modernization issue discussed by the Subcommittee involves the Judiciary. On September 6, Senator Stanley sent a letter to Attorney General Mark Herring asking him for formal opinions on several points pertaining to the federal and state constitutionality of inequalities in education opportunities for all posed by inadequate or deteriorated school facilities. Several acts of litigation have been filed and are under review in other states that contend unequally denying citizens a quality education prevents the equal exercise of existing constitutional rights and as such, is in violation of the 14th amendment.

VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett

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