Editorial: Legislation on school construction takes a step forward | Editorial

A wave of community concern from neighbors in Fan District and beyond has sprung up since the beloved William Fox Elementary School caught fire.

More than a week after the tragedy – which thankfully left no people dead – Richmond city, fire and school officials are still reeling from the event and working out the details. Multiple questions have surfaced, ranging from the effectiveness of the school district’s emergency communications to what may have caused the 110-year-old school fire.

For Richmond Public Schools, the new concern to replace this school, coupled with displaced students and disrupted routines, is paramount. He is piling up on a growing list of Richmond schools in need of renovations or rebuilding.

Fox Elementary is one of many public schools with the distinction of being over a century old and in need of improvements. Across Virginia, there are more than 1,000 K-12 school buildings — more than half of the state’s tally — that are on average over 50 years old, according to a Virginia Department of Education Report since last June.

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The School Building and Modernization Commission, a bipartisan team created in 2020, estimates that at least $24.8 billion would be needed to replace these aging structures. As communities face challenges raising capital to replace or renovate these schools, a few bills pending in the Legislative Assembly are a step toward creating a sustainable funding plan for help school districts.

Senate Bill 473 Establishes School Building Fund and Programwhich would direct the VDOE to establish a fund to provide grants to school boards that use “federal, state, and local programs and resources to fund the design and construction of new school buildings” or renovations.

The first of its kind in Virginia, the plan seeks to raise money in several ways: through gaming proceeds from casinos; by soliciting federal and state funding for education and through philanthropic giving. Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond is the lead sponsor and this agenda passed the Senate earlier this month.

When state revenue comes from casinos in Virginia, now eligible to operate in five cities, most of that revenue goes to a dedicated gaming fund, but a percentage set aside for building schools was subject to tax. approval of the General Assembly. The new legislation proposes to bypass this step and have any designated money go directly to the School Building Fund.

Senate Bill 472 (related to the first that McClellan is also leading) would allow all localities to levy up to 1% sales tax to raise funds only for school construction and renovation projects. Currently, nine localities are permitted to use this provision: Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania counties, and the town of Danville. Recent legislation seeks to add the city of Charlottesville and Isle of Wight County, but McClellan’s bill would allow all localities in the state to add it – if approved by local referendum.

There is also a bill to modify the existing Literary Fund, a program of the VDOE, to make it more attractive to localities. Created decades ago, it recovers funds from civil fines and other penalties with that money placed in a loan fund to support building or renovating schools. Among the changes is an increase in the distribution of loans: the current allocation is $7.5 million per project, the code change would increase loans up to $25 million per project.

These bills and other related school construction bills have passed the Senate and are currently being considered with related bills by the House of Delegates.

While not all fully passed, there is still $500 million left from former Gov. Ralph Northam’s biennial budget released in December that earmarks funds for school building projects. Elements of the budget bill are still under consideration, but it is expected that the part relating to the construction of schools will remain intact.

School districts can apply for a grant through the School Building Fund, which, if enacted, would take effect July 1. The state would make a decision on all applications, but when it comes to priority projects, it depends on the locality.

“These are tools the state can use to help this locality,” McClellan said. In a statement, McClellan also said “the bipartisan bill would allow voters … to choose whether to invest in building local schools.”

Which brings us back to Richmond. The city is currently not among the localities that can raise sales tax and use the surcharge for this purpose. But Richmond has increased its meal tax to achieve the same goal – a strategy other localities have also adopted.

Due to his age, Fox would likely qualify for public construction funds. It remains to be seen whether school officials will also tap into state resources (loans or grants) available to the district once it sees any potential gain from a fire insurance claim. The fire destroyed a new roof that had recently been put in, but it wouldn’t take a fire to receive money to renovate a century-old school.

Whether Fox gets a higher priority than other ongoing projects in Richmond (e.g. George Wythe High School) is another unknown, but perhaps those are separate issues.

For the Fox Building, any immediate plans — whether it will be renovated or razed and rebuilt — seem too early to speculate. The event is still too raw for many. Superintendent Jason Kamras said recently the focus is on healing and supporting the mental health of the community.

For now, the school community of dozens of teachers, students and families have turned to remote learning. There are talks to reopen Clark Springs Elementary as a possible temporary space. Other options leverage local venues such as places of worship or other community organizations.

Whether the upcoming conversations are about renovation or building new, there are at least discussions that are going in the right direction to support the construction of schools, the rehabilitation of aging structures, in the event of a fire or any other other unforeseen circumstance.

Lisa Vernon Sparks is co-editor of Opinions. Contact her at: [email protected]

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