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 – The state Senate on Monday on third reading approved legislation that would establish the School Construction Matching Grant Fund and Program, which would provide up to $2 billion in bonds to help localities repair aging and crumbling schools. The measure, which passed by a 38-1 vote, is now headed to the budget conference committee.

House Bill 563, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, the deputy majority leader, would award matching grants on a competitive basis to local school boards that demonstrate poor school building conditions, commitment, and need, in order to fund the construction of new public school buildings in these local school divisions. “We are finally moving the needle in a meaningful way that will actually solve the problem,” O’Quinn said after House Republicans presented their budget last month. 

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County.

The program would allow for the issuance of bonds for two tiers of public school buildings based on a locality’s ability to pay. Tier 1 provides rebates for 30% of total principal and interest costs for up to $1 billion in school construction projects, while tier 2 issues interest free loans for up to $1 billion in school construction projects based on the 2021 VPSA bond insurance rate.  

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. The exact allocation will be set this week as the General Assembly finalizes its two-year budget.

O’Quinn’s original bill was amended to require the Department of Education in collaboration with the Department of General Services to adopt and maintain a data collection tool to determine the age of school buildings across the commonwealth and the amount of maintenance reserve funds needed to restore each building. The language was also altered to require unobligated state gaming proceeds be directed to the Construction Fund for the purpose of awarding grants to local school boards – a recommendation made in a Senate Bill 473 sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, which the Senate conformed with O’Quinn’s House measure.  

Democrats, however, have been skeptical of O’Quinn’s competitive grant program, arguing that this loan-based approach would force school divisions to spend the money and use up debt capacity that many localities don’t have. Instead, they pushed for $500 million in grant money to modernize or replace Virginia’s crumbling school infrastructure, as proposed by former Gov. Ralph Northam in his final budget. 

According to data by the Virginia Department of Education the total cost to replace schools that are at least 50 years old would carry a price tag of about $25 billion. Another estimate landed on $28 billion.

O’Quinn’s proposal is the only bill relating to school construction that passed the House of Delegates by a unanimous vote of 100-0. 

This story was updated on March 8, 1:50 p.m.

Markus Schmidt

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