When it rains, buckets have to be set out in Prince Edward Elementary to catch the rain. Courtesy of Prince Edward County.

This is significant.

It’s not perfect, or even as good as it could be, but it’s still significant, and that’s something.

I refer to the proposed state budget approved Sunday by the House Appropriations Committee that includes a big chunk of money for school construction.

“Big chunk” is a vague phrase that I use intentionally because the details of this proposal are complicated, so complicated that a lot of school officials (and legislators, too) are still trying to figure them out. So don’t take this as the definitive word on every jot and tittle of how this will work. But big picture, the main thing to know is that the state appears on course to help school systems pay for modernizing their facilities or constructing new ones – something that will most help a lot of schools in rural communities.

And that’s significant.

I’ll spare you the history, which I’ve related before, about the politics of state funding for school construction. The short version: This has very little to do with left versus right, Democrats versus Republicans, but almost everything to do with metro areas versus rural areas – with the former able to take care of themselves and the latter not so much. In the late 1990s, it was rural Democrats (when there was such a thing) who were pushing for state funding, with pushback from suburban Republicans. More recently, it’s been rural Republicans who have been leading the charge – although in the past few years, we’ve seen that dynamic start to change. (Here’s what I must give the obligatory shout-out to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, for leading the state Commission on School Construction and Modernization.)

In his inaugural address in 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam lamented “crumbling schools,” and then had to endure nearly four years of editorial flogging before finding the money to do something about them. In the final budget he presented in December, he proposed $500 million for school construction. In dollar amounts, that would be the most ever – although when you factor in inflation, the $75 million spent under Gov. John Battle in the early 1950s would be about $868 million today so we’re still not at that level.

Nor are we anywhere close to $25 billion, which is what the state estimates it would cost to take care of the backlog of construction and modernization needs, so any solution has to be measured against that figure.

The Senate Finance Committee, in its budget, kept Northam’s funding intact, which is certainly better than not including it at all.

In a surprise move, though, the House Appropriations Committee approved a more complicated funding mechanism that would use $541.7 million in loan rebates that chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said would incentivize $2 billion worth of school construction.

This isn’t as good as the $4 billion bond issue that state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has been pushing.

It’s not as good as the $6 billion that Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County, had proposed.

And it’s certainly not $25 billion.

On the other hand, being able to get $2 billion worth of school construction underway is a very good deal – four times what Northam had proposed – so, as the old saying says, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

This is good.

Knight, the House Appropriations chairman, had earlier seemed cool to the idea of state funding of school construction – which might also reflect his suburban residence. In presenting the committee’s budget on Sunday, he credited Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, with the school construction proposal, which perfectly fits the geographical politics of school construction. O’Quinn is one of those rural Republicans who has been pushing this issue for years now. As recently as last week, one Republican (not O’Quinn) told me he was skeptical there’d be a majority to support state funding for school construction – and now this. Politics doesn’t provide many pleasant surprises but this seems a pleasant surprise.

The proposal isn’t perfect. It would require localities to put up some money, which is still a problem for many rural counties. Straight-out cash grants would be preferable, but as Otto von Bismarck said, “’Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

I called up Keith Perrigan, the superintendent in Bristol and, more importantly for our purposes here, the president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, which has been campaigning for state funding for school construction for years now. His views on the subject seem a lot more important than mine.

He was thrilled by the House proposal. “It’s a very creative way to get additional school construction funds,” Perrigan said. He says under this plan some localities could see the state foot 30% of the bill for school construction. “That’s significant. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that.”

That seems a pretty powerful endorsement for the House plan.

I saw some chatter on Twitter from Northern Virginia Democrats who said the requirement that localities put up some money would mean that rural – mostly Republican – localities probably wouldn’t get any money because they wouldn’t tax themselves enough to get the state aid. I do worry about any plan that would lead to poor localities being forced to tax themselves, but Perrigan says “this helps Bristol for sure,” so I’ll take his word over someone on Twitter. Again, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Perrigan goes on to say that “there won’t be one solution, there will be multiple solutions.”

There are a lot of bills moving through the legislature that would address school construction in some ways. One from McClellan and Stanley – now there’s a legislative odd couple – allows school boards to use unspent funds on school construction. That doesn’t seem controversial (it passed the Senate 40-0) but another one is. That bill, from McClellan, would allow localities to hold a referendum to raise the local sales tax to raise money for school construction. Under Virginia’s “Richmond, may I?” system of government, eight counties (Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania) and one city (Danville)  already have that power. The Republican-controlled House Finance Committee, though, earlier voted down the House version of that bill. It also voted down requests from some specific localities – including one from a fellow Republican, Del. Jim Edmunds of Halifax County, who asked permission for Prince Edward County to hold such a vote.

Perrigan says rural school systems are working to persuade some Republicans on that panel to change their vote for the Senate bill. He understands the reluctance of some Republicans to do anything that might lead to any tax increase somewhere, but these bills require a local referendum. “I can’t think of anything more conservative than that,” Perrigan says. The irony is that the Republicans voting down those sales tax referendums aren’t really preventing a tax increase; they’re just shifting the type of tax increase that will happen. Prince Edward County’s county administrator says that if his county doesn’t get permission to raise the local sales tax to raise money to fix its leaky elementary school, the alternative is raising the property tax 25.5%. Even if, under the House budget, the state winds up paying for 30% of the cost, Prince Edward County still seems to be looking at a hefty property tax hike – as opposed to a sales tax increase, some of which might get paid for by tourists. Edmunds told the South Boston News & Record he was “blindsided” by the vote and “have never been as upset in my 13 years being in state office as I was in that moment.” Perrigan said that “I think Edmunds’ reaction will at least cause some conversation about that. We’re not going to give up on it.”

This is where the politics of school construction are so interesting (or so complicated). When it comes to tax authority to raise money for school constructions, Republicans are the most skeptical – even if it’s Republican localities that would benefit most (and suffer the most if property taxes have to be raised). On the other hand, on the basic question of whether there should be any state aid for construction, the Republican-controlled House has now gotten out in front of the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Commonwealth Institute, a left-leaning nonprofit that has analyzed the state budget, says the Senate budget is more generous toward school funding in general than the House budget. However, on the specific question of school construction, the House budget is more generous than the Senate budget. If that House version prevails, we’ll have a bigger wave of state-funded school construction than we’ve seen at any time in Virginia’s history, bigger even than the famous one in the 1950s. It may be imperfect but it will be transformative in many places nonetheless.

I remain mystified why Democrats haven’t been pushing harder for school construction funds (other than that the party is now so anchored in affluent Northern Virginia that it’s generally not attuned to these issues, Reid being a notable exception). You’d think some Democrat with his or her eye on statewide office would look at how poorly the party has done with rural voters in recent years and see school construction as an issue that might win back some of those. On the other hand, I also remain mystified why Gov. Glenn Youngkin – who really does owe his election to rural voters – has remained so aloof. He sure seems concerned about a lot of other school issues, just not this one. Is that because Sean Hannity is more interested in critical race theory than whether students in Prince Edward County – a county that voted for Youngkin – are having to dodge trash cans set out to catch the rain leaking through the roof? There’s still time for Youngkin here to claim his place in history on a very practical issue but time is slipping by fast. Legislators like O’Quinn seem to be doing the hard work that the governor isn’t.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.