The Virginia Board of Education voted Thursday to approve school construction grants for 40 projects across the state, including 24 in Southwest and Southside.
The funds total $365 million, providing 28 school divisions with money to put toward renovations, additions or new construction.
Many schools have been struggling for years to deal with decaying infrastructure and get help from the state. For them, the grant awards announcement is a big relief.
“You can almost feel this community exhale,” said Amy Huskin, superintendent of Halifax County Public Schools. Earlier this week, the county’s school board authorized her to sign the contract to start work on a new high school, even as board members expressed concerns about how the project would be paid for if Halifax County didn’t get a grant.
Applications for the grants were graded based on 11 criteria, including building conditions and economic need. Winning projects could get up to 30% of the cost of the project paid by the state.
Halifax County will get $20 million, which will cover about 20% of the new high school’s price tag. The county had already secured $109 million of the $125 million cost.
The county has one high school for about 1,300 students. It was built in the late 1970s, with several levels, lots of carpeting, and areas with few windows, Huskin said. The division had gone back and forth on whether to renovate the school, but it would have cost more to renovate than to replace it outright, she said.
The county had implemented a 1% sales tax and sold bonds to put toward the new school, Huskin explained. But the board of supervisors voted against funding the gap, knowing that grant money was available. “We knew we qualified because we met the criteria, but there was no guarantee” that the division would get selected, she said.
Raising taxes, she said, wasn’t a viable option for Halifax County, which has an aging population, a high poverty rate and lots of rural stretches. “In a small rural community like this, you can only squeeze people so tight,” Huskin said.
The new school will be built adjacent to the current school in South Boston. It’s scheduled to open in fall 2025.
The General Assembly approved the creation of the $450 million School Construction Assistance Program in 2022 as part of a $1.3 billion effort to improve school infrastructure.
The state received 119 applications for the grants between January and March of this year.
Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, sponsored the legislation in the House of Delegates, while then-Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored the state Senate’s version. (McClellan is now in the U.S. House of Representatives for Virginia’s 4th District.)
O’Quinn has long been a proponent of boosting funding for school construction in areas that can’t afford to pay for the work on their own. “A lot of times in the legislature, you pass a bill and then struggle to quantify how much it moved the needle,” he said. “This project does that in a big way,” putting dollars into school divisions quickly to help with improvements that they desperately need.
Funding school infrastructure in Virginia has been a decades-long issue. Over time, in response to economic downturns, the state has pulled back on school funding. That’s left localities to pick up the slack with money raised through taxes. But in lower-income areas, the tax base hasn’t been vibrant enough to give school divisions additional money over normal operating costs in order to take on school renovations or new construction.
The General Assembly voted to create the Commission on School Construction and Modernization in 2020, after increasing pleas from school educators and administrators to help fill out their limited budgets.
That commission released a report in 2021 about the condition of the state’s public schools and projections for near-future enrollment. It found that more than half of all school buildings were more than 50 years old. And the oldest, with a median age of 58 years, were in Southwest and Southside.
Beyond this injection of cash, the state has the Literary Fund, a permanent program offering low-cost loans to help schools pay for projects, though O’Quinn said that fund works best for smaller-scale construction projects. And some revenue from the state’s casinos will go toward school construction needs.
In Bristol, $7.5 million of the grant money will help with construction of a new intermediate school, which is expected to cost $25 million.
The division wasn’t able to get traditional financing, said Superintendent Keith Perrigan. It was only able to get financing from the local industrial development authority because it’s consolidating three old schools into one new one for grades two through five.
Now that the state is picking up almost a third of the tab, it’ll free up resources to put back into the school system, instead paying off a bigger loan.
The new school is already in progress, but Perrigan said the grant is coming through at the right time. “Just last night the city cut the school budget by $500,000,” he said Wednesday ahead of the state education board vote. So many city resources are going toward ongoing issues surrounding its landfill, he said, that having this money come in for the new school “is going to give the city a little bit of breathing room.”
To receive a state grant worth up to 30% of the project costs, a school division needed to score at least 65 out of 100. Bristol’s application got a score of 92.
Bristol has the fourth-oldest schools in the state, Perrigan said, and the intermediate school will be its first new one in 50 years. Schools built in 1938, 1948 and 1968 will close to send students to the new school. None of those are accessible, and all of them have mold and asbestos issues, Perrigan said.
The city has just 17,000 residents but a poverty rate of more than 17%, per the latest Census Bureau data. The statewide poverty rate is 10%.
The new school will have a STEM lab among other state-of-the-art features. The outside walls are complete and the exterior brick is being installed. The school is slated to open in fall 2024.
Many of the school divisions on the list of winners are members of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, which Perrigan leads. (Perrigan moves over to neighboring Washington County this summer to serve as superintendent there; he’ll continue to lead the coalition.)
The coalition hosted a “crumbling schools” tour in summer 2021 to bring attention to the conditions in the state’s public schools. Halifax County High was one of the eight stops.
The awards vary in size. In Dickenson County, Ridgeview Elementary School will get $1.75 million. It may not seem like a lot compared to some other school divisions receiving $20 million to $30 million, but Superintendent Haydee Robinson said that without the money, the division would not be able to complete its goal of consolidating three elementary schools into one.
Two schools will move into the new Ridgeview Elementary building for the 2023 school year, closing Sandlick Elementary, which is in a floodplain, and Ervinton Elementary, which is more than 100 years old.
Now, the district can add six more classrooms onto the new building and close Clintwood Elementary, a nearly 50-year-old school with low enrollment. “We’re blessed to have this money,” Robinson said.
But not all school divisions are feeling victorious. Patrick County Public Schools applied for about $870,000 but was not on the list released Wednesday. “We were hoping to knock out four to five projects,” Superintendent Jason Wood said Wednesday night. “I’m feeling a little defeated.”
The division would have been eligible to receive 30% of its project costs toward work such as renovating high school locker rooms from the 1970s and replacing an elementary school stage to make it safer.
At Hardin Reynolds Memorial School, which goes through seventh grade, students must go outside and cross a road to get to gym class — and if it rains, they complete physical education in their classrooms. The school would have used the grant to add a multipurpose room that could be used on those rainy days.
Wood said the county doesn’t have room in its budget to support the school system beyond the basics each year. “Our students deserve this opportunity,” he said, noting the division’s high Standards of Learning test scores. “The county does what it can, but doesn’t have the economic development to support schools in the way it would like to.”
About $85 million remains in the construction grant fund.
During its meeting Thursday, the state board voted to offer a 30-day review period for applicants who had scores near the 65-point threshold, to resolve any technical errors that could have prevented them from being approved.
Kent Dickey, the state’s deputy superintendent of budget, finance and operations, also said that his office would respond to applicant questions about the scores.
At some point after that 30-day review period, the Department of Education is expected to open a second round of applications for any remaining grant money.
Correction May 12, 2023: Halifax County High School was built in the late 1970s. The date was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
The Commission on School Construction and Modernization was created to address funding pleas from school divisions across the state in 2020. Details about its genesis were incorrect in a previous version of this story.