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

This story was updated at 3:54 p.m.

RICHMOND – House Republicans propose to make available $2 billion for school construction needs in Virginia – which is four times the $500 million proposed by former Gov. Ralph Northam in his two-year budget that he sent to the General Assembly in December. “To put this in perspective, this would build 80 new elementary schools,” Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said during the presentation of the House of Delegates budget amendments Sunday.

School construction has been one of the state’s most pressing problems for decades, and cash infusions from the state are desperately needed especially in many underserved communities in Southwest and Southside Virginia, where localities with a low tax base struggle to keep up even with the most basic maintenance. 

The Senate version of the budget appears to have stayed with Northam’s original $500 million proposal.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Education Committee, said that many schools in those areas have faced “horrible conditions” that students do not deserve. “Roofs were leaking, HVAC systems were failing, and pipes were deteriorating. This is a health and safety matter, and this is unacceptable,” Davis said at the budget presentation by the House Appropriations Committee. 

Virginia school divisions spend just over $1 billion annually on capital projects, Davis said. By establishing the School Construction Loan Rebate program, communities that would otherwise be unable to address school infrastructure needs would have access to an additional $2 billion in funding. “This proposal will go a long way toward addressing the critical conditions facing so many of our school buildings,” Davis said. “Virginia students deserve the best education possible in modern state-of-the-art schools.”

However, documents provided as part of the budget presentation also show that the state would provide a total of $541.7 million (funded with $291.7 million from the General Fund and $250 million from the state’s literary fund) in loan rebates that would incentivize $2 billion in school construction loans in a two-tier system.

House Republicans also recommend a 4% salary increase for teachers staff in both budget years – which is 1% below Northam’s proposal – in addition to a 1% bonus. “Without our teachers, the students would not have the same opportunities to develop into the future leaders of Virginia,” Davis said. “We recognize that Virginia is behind the national average of K-12 teachers, but this pay increase is moving us in the right direction. Virginia will now be 80% closer to the national average than we are now.”

Northam’s two-year budget for fiscal 2022-24 totals $158 billion. A strong economic recovery and federal aid during the pandemic allowed the administration to set aside $1.7 billion to the commonwealth’s revenue reserves, including a $564 million voluntary deposit, bringing the total reserves amount to more than $3.8 billion, or 16.8% of state revenues, and more than double the 8% that the administration set as a goal four years ago.

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Budget also includes money to study using Catawba Hospital for substance abuse treatment

The House budget also includes $1 million for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to study the feasibility of transforming Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery in addition to its current mental health services.

Located in the western part of Roanoke County, about half an hour from Roanoke City, Catawba Hospital specializes in serving adults who need mental health care. House Bill 5, sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, would expand the hospital’s role in the community.

Rasoul on Sunday thanked Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, the vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, as well as the regional delegation for “appreciating the value of us making this investment and moving forward with planning for the transformation of the Catawba campus.” 

Both the House of Delegates and the state Senate are presenting their proposed amendments Sunday. Delegates submit their amendments to the budget bill to the House Appropriations Committee, while their colleagues in the Senate submit amendments to the budget bill to the Senate Finance Committee. 

After reporting their respective amendments, both chambers are set to vote on their budget bills on the floor sometime this week before the finalized versions cross over to the other body for review. As the next step, a Budget Conference Committee is appointed that typically is made up of six delegates and six Senators. These so-called conferees negotiate the final version of the budget and present it to the House and Senate, where it is voted on again before heading to the governor’s desk.  

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Budget also includes money for life sciences labs

The House budget also includes $15.7 million for life sciences labs in the Roanoke and New River Valley. It couldn’t be determined whether there was similiar money in the Senate budget.

Markus Schmidt

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