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

Why?

That’s one of the most useful words in the English language. It’s such a simple yet powerful word that helps us learn so many things, from childhood on.

Why is the sky blue? (It’s called Rayleigh Scattering. When sunlight hits the atmosphere, the light waves scatter and the smallest wavelengths of light scatter most – and those are the ones on the blue spectrum.)

Why did the chicken cross the road? (Umm, to get to the other side.)

Why is Grandpa taking all those bags of yeast and copper line out into the woods? (Umm, maybe it’s time we take a listen to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”)

Today, I’ll pose another: Why is school construction a local responsibility?

There are two types of people in Virginia politics: those who think the state should put up money for school construction and those who don’t. Those who don’t – or who are, at best, reluctant about the whole idea – tend to fall back on the explanation that school construction and maintenance is a local responsibility.

When Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County, earlier this year questioned why there wasn’t money for school construction in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed budget amendments, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee had a ready answer. “School construction has never been a function of state government,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach. “It’s always been a function of local government.”

Youngkin himself fell back on this answer during a recent interview with Markus Schmidt of Cardinal News: “Historically, school construction has been a local responsibility.”

Yes, that’s true. But why?

Or, perhaps a better variation of that question, why must it remain that way?

Just because something has always been one way doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best way. Yes, I realize this is Virginia and I just broke some tenet of the Virginia Way, but I’ll ask it again: Why should local school construction be purely a local responsibility?

Schools aren’t. There’s a certain fiction that schools are locally operated. Some of that’s true. We elect local school boards and those local school boards can hire or fire superintendents. They can close schools or authorize new ones to be built. They can enact certain policies and programs. They can even pull controversial books from the school library, if that’s what they’re worked up about. But they’re not really setting the overall curriculum. There’s a whole long list of state and federal mandates they have to follow (many of those the famous “unfunded mandates.”) In many places, particularly rural localities, they’re not even paying for most of the local school district’s operation. In Lee County, for instance, local funds account for only 7.6% of the school budget, according to the Virginia Department of Education. State and federal spending (mostly state) accounts for the rest. In Buena Vista, the figure is 10.5%. In Hopewell, 13.2%. In Scott County, 14.4%. You can make the case, if you want, that those localities should be spending more, but it’s also hard to squeeze more money out of taxpayers in a county (such as Lee) where the median household income is $35,006. That’s why Virginia’s school funding formula is set up to provide more money for less affluent localities. Maybe Lee can afford to pay more than $1,023 per student but it certainly can’t be like Arlington County, which spends $16,919 of its own dollars per student. Arlington, with a median household income of $122,604, can afford to pay for 78.5% of its school expenses.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face (no Rayleigh Scattering there) about whether these funding formulas are perfectly fair and whether the state provides enough money for education, but the basic principles seem sound. Virginia rightly provides more school funding for poor counties than it does for rich ones and nobody thinks that’s a violation of some sacred principle somewhere. On the contrary, even our present Republican governor brags that “It’s been a priority of mine to have the largest education budget.” Rural localities will be the biggest beneficiaries of that.

So why doesn’t the same principle apply to school construction? That’s often the biggest single school expense many localities face.

Take Halifax County, which is now weighing designs for a new high school. The county’s school budget is $59.6 million. The cost of building a new school is put at $124 million – and might go higher.

The median household income in Halifax is $43,714. Under the state’s funding formula, Halifax pays about 20% of the school of school operations. So why must it pay 100% for construction?

School buildings are expensive wherever they are, but those expenses are hardest to bear in less affluent communities. Those also tend to be the localities with the oldest schools, and therefore the greatest need – but the least ability to pay.

We see this most clearly now in Prince Edward County. The county’s elementary school leaks. It leaks so much that three rooms are simply unusable. Buckets get brought out on rainy days for some of the others. To replace the school would cost $39 million. The county school board has opted for a less expensive renovation that would cost $28.3 million. That’s still more than the county’s current school operations, which cost about $25.3 million. Prince Edward currently pays for 22% of that but will have to pay for 100% of those renovations. But how? The county wanted permission to hold a referendum on whether to raise the local sales tax (on the theory that some of those taxes would get paid by nonresidents passing through the county). The General Assembly said no (technically, a House subcommittee, which means the measure never came to a floor vote in the full House). That means the county seems to be left with just one option: Raise the property tax by 25.5% – this in a county where the median household income is $44,253.

The legislators who voted down giving Prince Edward County permission to ask voters whether to raise the sales tax all did so because they’re against tax increases – yet they all indirectly voted in favor of a 25.5% tax increase in Prince Edward County. If a measure were introduced asking if the General Assembly was in favor of raising the county’s taxes by 25.5%, I can’t imagine a single legislator – Democrat or Republican – voting yes. Yet here five Republicans effectively voted to set in motion a series of events that will do just that.

This wouldn’t be happening if the state put up money for school construction.

Maybe making localities 100% responsible for school construction made sense in some earlier era – the era of the one-room schoolhouse, perhaps. It seems to make no sense in the modern era. The expectations for school buildings have become more complicated and thus more expensive, security being just one of the things that previous generations didn’t have to worry about.

The examples I’ve cited above all involve Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other, but that’s just happenstance. The question of state funding for school construction doesn’t split that cleanly along party lines. The legislator who sponsored the bill that would have allowed Prince Edward to ask its voters about a sales tax was a Republican – Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County. The legislator at the forefront of the plan now embedded in the House budget that would create a steam of state funds for school construction is a Republican – Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County. Until this year, the legislator behind the biggest proposal for state funding for school construction was a Republican – Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County – who pushed a statewide advisory referendum for $4 billion. It was killed in a House committee last year run by Democrats. On the other hand, the biggest proposal for state funding for construction this year came from a Democrat – Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County, who proposed $6 billion. The chair of a state commission on school construction and modernization, who says that state funding for schools must be “completely restructured,” is a Democrat – Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

The bottom line is that over the years there have been Democrats and Republicans on both sides. There has, at least, been enough progress so that both versions of the state budget this year include some money for school construction. The Republican House has a complicated version that some like because it sets up a permanent funding stream but others don’t like because it requires poor localities to still borrow money. The Democratic Senate has a more straightforward version that some like because they say it produces the most money now but others don’t like because it’s a one-time thing.

That brings me back to those legislators who are reluctant to embrace state funding for school construction because it’s a “local responsibility.”

When Knight, the House Appropriations chair, says that, I understand it. He’s from an affluent community. What I don’t understand is Youngkin. He was elected because of overwhelming support from rural Virginia. In many suburbs, he was able to restore the Republican vote to pre-Trump levels – but that wasn’t enough to elect, say, Ken Cuccinelli in 2013. What elected Youngkin was how he was able to ratchet up the Republican vote in rural Virginia. (I wrote about that in more detail in an earlier column.) He owes his governorship to rural voters, so what does he owe them?

If Youngkin can find a way to lead Virginia out of the mindset that school construction must be only a local responsibility, the prime beneficiaries would be many of his supporters – taxpayers living in rural Virginia. In Prince Edward, which now faces a 25.5% tax increase, Youngkin won 54% of the vote. In Halifax County, where the price of a new high school is $124 million and rising, he won 64%. Rural Republicans ought to be clamoring the loudest for state funding for school construction; it would effectively be a form of tax relief. The state government has lots of ways to raise revenue; local governments have fewer, which means they must lean so much on the property tax.

Out of 50 states, there appear to be 50 different ways of funding school construction, or something close to it. Virginia is one of the few states where the state government generally doesn’t get involved. The American Society of Civil Engineers has compiled a helpful guide of how states pay for schools. What I notice is that there seems little ideology involved. Many deep red states pay for at least some of the cost.

Alabama: “The Alabama Department of Education provides annual grants to school districts.”

Arkansas: “The Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation provides funds directly to local school districts for qualifying new construction, renovation, or alteration projects.”

Georgia: “The Georgia Department of Education provides reimbursements to school districts for approved facility projects, with the state facility funding level set by formula in state law.

Tennessee: “Tennessee provides annual capital funds to local school districts through a formula as part of the Basic Education Program (BEP) funds.”

West Virginia: “The state provides reimbursements directly to individual approved capital projects. The School Building Authority evaluates projects for funding using established criteria that includes health and safety, reasonable travel time, regional planning, adequate space for projected enrollment, history of efforts to pass local bond issues, regularly scheduled preventative maintenance, and efficient use of funds.”

Need I go on? I believe I will. Our new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, comes from Wyoming. Wyoming’s school construction system is described like this: “The Wyoming School Facilities Commission (SFC) provides non‐matching grants to local school districts for approved capital projects. Project funding is determined by combining scores from a facility condition assessment, educational functionality, and capacity to create a prioritized needs index that identifies the most critical projects across the state. The SFC pays the full cost of all projects it funds – no local match is required.”

Read that last line again. If Wyoming, conservative Wyoming, can do this, tell me again why Virginia still believes that poor localities must tax themselves while the state government is overflowing with cash. 

Dwayne Yancey

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