The exterior of Highland View Elementary in Bristol, a school declared "functionally obsolete" in 2011 but still in use. Courtesy of Bristol Public Schools.

On a hot Wednesday morning back in July, Robert Graham, the superintendent of Radford City Schools, led a group of visitors from out of town through the local high school. Among the dozen guests was Del. Haya Ayala from Prince William County right outside of Washington, D.C., then the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, who got to experience firsthand how it feels on a sweltering summer day inside a gym without air conditioning that the school system simply cannot afford to get fixed. 

“There are significant renovation needs at our high school, just for HVAC improvements alone, we are looking at about $5 million,” Graham said in a recent interview, as he reminisced about the visit by state officials at the school. Radford High was just another stop on the Crumbling Schools Tour, a statewide initiative to give lawmakers, educators and other stakeholders an opportunity to view the deteriorating conditions of public schools, many of which are in the underserved communities of Southwest and Southside Virginia. 

Virginia’s school infrastructure crisis has been decades in the making. But there are signs of efforts now underway to finally address this multibillion-dollar challenge in a state in which more than half of public school buildings are more than 50 years old. A legislative commission on school construction in December adopted several recommendations for making more grants and low-interest loans available to school divisions, which would benefit especially those in underserved localities that have far less capacity to provide much above the state required minimum for per student expenditures. The panel also endorsed the establishment of a separate fund for school modernization for the state legislature to consider when it reconvenes in Richmond next week.

And in his final two-year budget, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam proposed to contribute $500 million from the state’s flush coffers toward repairing or replacing outdated public school buildings – a plan that school officials like Graham welcome as a starting point. “It would be a blessing to be able to have the opportunity to provide what we need to our staff and students,” he said. “But please understand that there are more needs, and sustainability is such a powerful word, we are going to use those funds quickly but we are going to need more so our children have the opportunity to thrive,” Graham said.

A small city of just 16,000, Radford has two elementary schools, one intermediate school and one high school, all of which require modernization and costly upgrades. Some renovations are currently ongoing at McHarg Elementary, using funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Work was due to be completed a few months ago but has been delayed until April because of the pandemic. “I hope we can move into that building in fall,” Graham said. In the meantime, some students were moved to modular trailer units at Belle Heth Elementary for security reasons, others are in classrooms that the school system is renting at a local church. 

McHarg, which was built in 1954, has needed extensive upgrades for years. “It’s been frustrating,” Graham said. “I can remember a meeting with school board members and city council in 2010 when I was assistant superintendent, and talking about the need to have McHarg renovated, and we’re finally getting that done.”

Graham said that the Crumbling Schools tour was an attempt at bringing attention to the need for school construction and modernization funding and to bridge the disconnect between the Southwest and the more affluent communities in Northern Virginia. “We had some delegates, senators, lieutenant governor candidates, folks from architectural companies and educators, and we showed them what we are dealing with here,” he said. “Loudoun County is building two or three schools a year, how is that equitable to schools here in Southwest Virginia?”

But lawmakers have long been aware of the dire situation at many Virginia schools. In 2013, during the final weeks of Bob McDonnell as governor, his administration compiled a list of all the school construction needs in the state totalling $18 billion. That year also marked the last time that school construction grants and other funding were made available to localities by the state. 

In 2018, an investigation by The Roanoke Times showed that 29.6% of Virginia’s public schools were built before 1958, and 13% were built before 1949. More recent data provided by the 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. 

For school systems in the far Southwest, raising these funds from their local tax base is impossible. Take Bristol, a city of 17,000 separated from its twin city of the same name by the state line that runs down the middle of its main street. Bristol City Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan is dealing with a wide array of maintenance challenges that have befallen every school in his district. “We have technology issues, asbestos, mold, water infiltration, mildew, and we are not equipped for providing a 21st century education,” Perrigan said in a phone interview. 

Of Bristol’s six schools, the newest was built in 1974, and the oldest in 1916. In 1997, the Virginia Department of Education recommended for two schools to be phased out of service, but “for many reasons, that has not occurred,” Perrigan said. In 2011, independent consultants recommended the same. “Three of our oldest schools are elementary schools, one was built in 1938, one in 1948 and the third in 1968. Two of those are completely handicapped inaccessible, one is only partially accessible.” 

Perrigan, who also serves as president of Virginia’s Coalition of Small and Rural Schools and as a member of the newly formed Commission on School Construction and Modernization, cited an incident from a few years ago, when a fifth-grader broke her leg. “She would have graduated that year, but because 5th grade classes are on the top floor of that building, and the cafeteria is on the bottom floor, with no elevator, we had to transfer that student to a different school,” he said. 

The Crumbling Schools Tour visitors and candidates coming through the area during election season has reignited interest in the issue of school construction, Perrigan said. “People comment that we’ve been putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. Some lawmakers representing the more affluent urban areas are beginning to understand the challenges facing schools in the Southwest.

 “Between Loudoun County and Dickenson County, there is a difference of $112,000 in income. To think they have the same capacity to raise the local resources needed is just not realistic,” Perrigan said. “And while this isn’t the state’s full responsibility, localities like Bristol, or Lee and Halifax counties are only going to be able to improve infrastructure with help from the state and the federal government.”

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County has championed legislation providing for more school construction funding for years, and he is one of the lawmakers serving on the bipartisan school construction commission. He said that while he appreciated Northam’s budget proposal, $500 million is not nearly enough to transform the infrastructure of Virginia’s schools. “We’re really looking at a minimum of $6 billion to address the crumbling of the schools that’s going on. We need to stop the degradation of schools by time and weather, we must start with the roofs and once we stabilize the structure we have to make sure that teachers have the tools to provide a modern education,” Stanley said in a recent interview. “Whether it’s inner city or rural areas, we need to modernize infrastructure to match that in the more populated areas so a child who graduates from a school in Danville gets the same education as a child in Fairfax County. We see some money now going in the right direction but that’s not enough,” Stanley said.

On the federal level, Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, both members of the Senate Budget Committee, in September reintroduced legislation to help modernize schools in Virginia and across the nation. The School Infrastructure Modernization Act would adjust the current federal historic rehabilitation tax credit to make school buildings that continue to operate as schools eligible for the credit. Under current law, the credit only applies to buildings renovated to serve a different function than before.

 This bill would waive this ‘prior use’ clause for school renovation projects, allowing school districts with aging infrastructure and tight budgets to partner with private entities to finance renovations that the districts otherwise would not be able to afford. Older schools can often be renovated for less money than the cost of new construction.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the need to ensure our schools are modern and safe learning environments,” Kaine and Warner said in a joint statement. “By modernizing schools, we can help more students learn, support local economies with construction jobs, and maintain the character of these historic institutions.”

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said in an email that federal funding streams for education support “programmatic spending” such as Title I rather than school construction. “Occasionally, money sent by the Federal Government to states for general educational purposes has been subsequently directed to construction,” Griffith said. 

Stanley, the state senator from Franklin County, recognizes that low-income rural communities with a low tax base rely more heavily on state funding than the more prosperous counties. Ahead of the 2021 General Assembly session, Stanley introduced several bills, including a proposal for a statewide referendum on a $3 billion bond issue to finance school construction. It was killed by Democrats in a House committee. 

“School modernization should be a 100-percent bipartisan idea and should be executed as such, but as I discovered, the Democrats in the wealthier counties had no interest that kids in Petersburg got the same education as theirs,” Stanley said. “It was very disappointing that they were unwilling to engage in this, because they based their policy making on their zip codes, and every zip code south of the James River wasn’t important.”

Now Stanley and many school officials, particularly in the Southwest and Southside, are hoping that the General Assembly will take up a list of half a dozen recommendations adopted by the Commission on School Construction and Modernization in December. 

One of the key proposals asks the legislature to make changes to the state Literary Fund – a tool enshrined in the state Constitution as a permanent fund to provide low interest loans to school divisions – by increasing the minimum size of the fund from $80 million to $250 million, raising the maximum loan from $7.5 million to $25 million. The fund currently has a balance of about $134 million after expending $229 million in fiscal year 2021.

The commission also recommended lowering interest rates from currently 2 to 6% at 1% increments to 1 to 3% at .5% increments, and creating an open application process at a scheduled time each year with priority given to low LCI (Local Ability to Pay) school divisions that make certain commitments. 

Perrigan, the superintendent from Bristol, said that 40 years ago, the Literary Fund was primarily used for school construction. But in the last five years, just $24 million went towards school construction, while $790 million were used for the teacher retirement fund. “As the Literary Fund started to be focused on other areas, high poverty school divisions lost one way to fund school construction,” Perrigan said.  

As another means to raise revenue, the commission asked the General Assembly to allow localities to impose a 1% increase of the local sales tax to provide revenue solely for capital projects for the construction or renovation of schools – if such levy is approved in a voter referendum. Under current law, such sales tax is only permitted in nine Virginia localities. And it asked the legislature to direct the Board of Education to make recommendations for revising the standards for operations and maintenance of and new construction of public school buildings, and to allow school divisions to keep unexpended money appropriated by the locality at the end of a fiscal year and use it for one-time projects. 

The panel also wants the legislature to establish a special non-reverting fund and a competitive program for the award of grants for the construction or renovation of public school buildings, using funds remaining in the Casino Gaming Fund and, potentially, from the commercialization of marijuana. This would help localities that don’t qualify for or are unable to afford loans.

  Perrigan said that expanding access to low-interest loans, grants and returning the Literary Fund to its original purpose all are steps in the right direction. “Bristol has limited borrowing capacity, so bonds really won’t help us. But for other localities bonds would help, and localities having the capacity to add a sales tax, and any revenues, like casinos, those recommendations along with other remedies will go a long way in beginning to solve the school infrastructure crisis,” he said. 

The new Republican majority in the House of Delegates will consider the commission’s recommendations and Northam’s budget proposal during the 2022 legislative session. While Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has made public education a key platform of his campaign, he has not yet publicly weighed in. Several emails to his transition team asking for comment were not answered.  

Stanley applauded the commission’s list of recommendations. “We have to fix the problem with a concerted effort and a commitment to dollars, so when we finish we don’t have to start over again. If we knock this out now, we don’t have to do it again in the future,” he said. “If you beat the drum loud enough, people in the Assembly will listen and find a solution.” 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.