In Halifax County, the school board faces a no-win situation. The county’s high school has some serious structural issues. The cost of fixing them is put at $88 million. The cost of building an entirely new school is $100 million.
The $12 million difference might be worth debating, except it’s hard for Halifax to afford either option. This is one of the poorest counties in the state (median household income $37,001), with population that is both shrinking and aging.
Halifax is hardly alone in being unable to afford to fix deteriorating schools. Lee County has schools where the roofs are leaking; the walls have separated from the foundation, and the cracked windows are duct-taped together. Last fall, voters were presented with a plan to renovate or replace many of them. Voters rejected it, overwhelmingly. Why? Probably not because they don’t care about their kids, but because they can’t afford the $47.2 million pricetag. This is a county where the median household income is $31,577, even lower than Halifax. The prospect of a 14-cent property tax increase for real estate tax and a 70-cent increase for personal property tax is just untenable.
This isn’t simply a rural issue, either. Richmond, our capital city, has schools that are even older than the ones in Halifax or Lee counties. In fact, Richmond has some of the oldest school buildings in the state, with seven that pre-date America’s involvement in World War I. The cost of modernizing the city’s schools has been pegged at $800 million.
When Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered an inventory of the state’s school buildings in 2013, the word came back that modernizing just the ones more than 30 years old would cost — are you ready for this — $18 billion.
How can localities afford to upgrade these schools? Many simply can’t. In Bristol, Highland View Elementary (built in 1935) was declared “functionally obsolete” in 2011. The city also has been declared “fiscally distressed” by state auditors. The city can barely pay its bills, much less pay for a new school. And raising taxes to generate more revenue? Forget it: More than 42 percent of the city’s residents qualify for some sort of government assistance.
To its credit, Pulaski County did a rare thing last fall when voters there approved a bond referendum that they knew would lead to a tax increase. That bond referendum will build a single middle school to replace two older ones, one of which dates to 1928 and has just a single electrical outlet per room — high technology for the Roaring Twenties but laughingly inadequate today. Other localities, though, simply struggle along, ordering more duct tape and surge protectors. Meanwhile, Loudoun County offers computer science instruction to kindergartners, and Arlington County’s high schools don’t just have swimming pools, they have multi-pool “aquatic centers.” Many Northern Virginia students go to school in high-tech palaces while students in Richmond are dodging pieces of tile falling from the ceiling and students in Lee County are fetching buckets to catch the rain dripping through the roof.
Enter an odd couple of Virginia politics. From stage right comes Bill Stanley, a Republican state senator from Franklin County who represents a big swath of rural Southside. From stage left comes Paul Goldman, a Democratic lawyer and political strategist from Richmond best-known for masterminding Doug Wilder’s historic victory for governor back in 1989. These are two people who would normally be found on opposite sides. But on the subject of school modernization, the Venn diagram of politics has found them in agreement.
Stanley chairs a legislative committee examining how to modernize Virginia’s school buildings; the panel holds its first meeting today in Blacksburg. Goldman has been pushing this issue for more than a decade, button-holing Democrats and Republicans alike. In Stanley, he’s found a receptive ear, which is why the Republican Stanley has installed the Democrat Goldman as the policy adviser on his school modernization committee. If they can find common cause, perhaps others can, as well?
Many issues before General Assembly split along partisan lines. Others split along regional lines. The examples we’ve cited above point to why school modernization might be different. This is an issue that unites both rural areas and inner cities, and potentially some suburbs, too. For example, Fort Lewis Elementary in Roanoke County was built in 1928.
So how to pay for all this? Stanley and Goldman have a plan, one that doesn’t raise a penny of taxes.
First, Stanley plans to introduce legislation to allow businesses to qualify for historic tax credits if they donate money to renovate an old school. He hopes that will generate private donations from companies who have a vested interest in creating a better-trained workforce in their community.
Here’s the big one, though, which he and Goldman outline in their commentary on the opposite page: Virginia’s about to come into a windfall. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this spring that states can collect taxes on internet sales. Technically, these sales have always been subject to taxation, but court rulings had blocked states from collecting much of it. Now they can. This could mean $250 million to $300 million in additional state revenue. Stanley and Goldman propose a bond issue to pay for school modernization — using half that windfall to pay off the bonds. Suddenly, here’s up to $3 billion in construction money and not a single tax got raised.
Stanley pitches this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “If we let this get away from us, we’ll never solve the problem because the pot of money required is too great,” he says
Politically, this could unite rural areas, usually represented by Republicans, with cities, usually represented by Democrats. The wild card is politically powerful Northern Virginia. In 2013, the General Assembly passed a law that if Congress ever allowed taxation on internet sales, the money would go to transportation. Congress didn’t do this, though. The U.S. Supreme Court did. Stanley says this money is fair game and half of it should go to schools: “Do I want to save someone nine minutes on their commute, or give a child a chance when they’re learning in an outdated school? I’m going to choose the child every time.”
Stanley is about to embark on a great crusade, hoping to unite disparate political and regional factions to bring all the state’s schools into the 21 century. “I can’t see a conservative or a liberal who would be against this issue,” he says. We hope he’s right.