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

RICHMOND – A Senate subcommittee on Thursday advanced a measure that would require  school boards to use unspent leftover funds from the state to finance capital projects. Senate Bill 276, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, seeks to ensure that school divisions use any unexpended tax dollars for school construction and modernization – one of the top legislative priorities for both Republicans and Democrats in the 2022 session. 

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County

Under current law, all unspent funds from the state must revert back to the fund of the commonwealth from which derived unless the State Board of Education directs otherwise. For that reason, school divisions often repurpose funds to benefit administrative needs instead of crumbling buildings. 

“The bill is making sure that these tax resources we collect in Virginia and give to these schools go to infrastructure too and not just get swallowed up by the administration,” Stanley said in an interview Thursday. “I always see the administration of schools as being the leaves and the gutter. When it rains, if there are too many leaves in the gutter, what comes out at the bottom of the spigot is a trickle.”

Virginia’s school infrastructure crisis has been long in the making. Before former Gov. Bob McDonnell left office in 2014, his administration compiled a list of all the school construction needs in the state totalling $18 billion. But more recent data 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 – an insurmountable investment, especially for localities with a low tax base in the rural and underserved areas of Southwest and Southside Virginia that rely on state funding.

While school officials statewide welcomed the proposal by outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam that would contribute $500 million from the state’s flush coffers toward repairing or replacing outdated public school buildings, this potential investment being weighed by the state legislature is little more than a drop in the bucket. 

Stanley’s bill is part of a list of recommendations sent to the legislature by the newly formed bipartisan Commission on School Construction and Modernization last month. To the lawmaker, his proposal would be an easy way for localities to free up much needed cash for school construction and modernization that would otherwise be spent elsewhere. “That’s significant money, sometimes millions of dollars,” Stanley said. 

Currently it is at a school division’s discretion to spend their tax dollars how they see fit, but the proposed legislation seeks to change that. “If there is a surplus from state funds, from state tax dollars, that should go towards maintenance and modernization. That gives school divisions a pool of money every year to modernize their schools,” Stanley said. 

Bristol City Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan, the president of Virginia’s Coalition of Small and Rural Schools and a member of the legislative school construction commission, welcomed Stanley’s measure. “School construction and modernization is a statewide issue with many local nuances,” Perrigan said in an email. “Having a robust set of tools in our belt will ensure solutions are available for a wide variety of school division needs. This tool will be an important addition to the numerous solutions it will take to improve school facilities statewide.”

Senate Bill 279 has been referred to the full Senate Committee on Education and Health. 

Stanley also filed legislation that would task the State Board of Education to work with the Department of General Services to create a standard by which can be determined if a school is modern or not. “We should have a standard – what is a modern school, and what is a modernized school? It helps having standards when you build new schools, it also helps in understanding what is required in rehabilitating an old school and keeping it in service,” Stanley said.

But Stanley did not re-introduce a bill that he had sponsored nearly half a dozen times in previous years – a proposal for a statewide referendum on a $3 billion bond issue to finance school construction. During the 2021 session, the proposal was killed by Democrats in a House committee. “At first I could never get a vote out of the Senate, then I convinced the Senate that it was a good bill, and then I could not get a vote out of the House, where they bottled it up in Appropriations,” he said.

This year, Stanley said he decided to let the General Assembly focus on the school construction initiatives, such as 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 commission also endorsed the establishment of a separate fund for school modernization.

“Let’s build some momentum, let’s get some things passed, and then I’ll bring it back next year, when everybody is getting ready to run in the House and the Senate, so it should be before the voters who will also be voting on who their representatives are,” Stanley said of his proposed bond referendum.  

This timing would put lawmakers up for reelection on the spot about where they stand on the issue of school construction and modernization, Stanley said. “Quite frankly, you should have members of the House and the Senate, or any candidate, run alongside that referendum and be either for or against and, and I think that will determine if this is an important issue for the community and who the right person is to represent them in the General Assembly.”

Markus Schmidt

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