By Callie Hietala
Last week, the Virginia Senate passed the final three bills in a five-bill package that, if approved by the House, provides pathways for additional funding for school construction, including Martinsville and Henry County schools. Two of the bills were passed by the Senate in January.
The bipartisan legislative package was recommended by the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, which reported that more than half of K-12 school buildings in Virginia are more than 50-years-old. It estimated the amount of funding needed to replace these aging buildings is $24.8 billion. Many localities face significant challenges raising sufficient funds to undertake these projects.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, is a member of the commission.
“From the very beginning, (commission chairman) Sen. (Jennifer) McClellan (D-Richmond) and I have fought together for the modernization of our public school buildings because we believe that a modern school is one of the essential ingredients needed to provide a world class education for our children throughout the Commonwealth,” Stanley said in a press release on the package.
“We both firmly believe that our children are our Commonwealth’s most precious natural resource, and I am so very proud to stand beside Sen. McClellan as we continue our efforts to make sure that every child in Virginia, no matter what their zip code, has a chance at receiving that world class, 21st century education.”
Most of the schools in Henry County are more than 50 years old, according to Henry County Public Schools Director of Communications Monica Hatchett. The oldest building, Sanville Elementary, was built in 1927. Of the division’s 15 school buildings, only three have not yet met that half-century mark. Bassett High School, built in 1978, is 44 years old, and Magna Vista High School was constructed 10 years later, in 1988. The division’s newest building is Meadow View Elementary, which began construction in 2018.
Travis Clemons, executive director of administrative services for Martinsville City Public Schools, said the city’s youngest school, Martinsville High School, opened 54 years ago in 1968. While each of the schools have had “some touch of renovation over the years, much of it is still dated,” he said.
One of the bills, Senate Bill (SB) 481 encourages local governing bodies and school boards to collaborate to set aside funds for capital projects that were appropriated to the school board by the governing body but are not spent by the school board within the fiscal year. It also permits any school board to finance capital projects with any funds appropriated to it by the local governing body that are unexpected by the board in any year.
Henry County’s Board of Supervisors and school board already have a version of this agreement, according to the county’s Public Information Officer Brandon Martin. The two bodies passed a joint resolution allowing the first $500,000 of unexpended funds to carry over to the school’s next budget for capital improvement projects. The next $500,000 would go back to the Board of Supervisors, and if $1 million or more is left over at the end of the year, then the two boards split the funds dollar for dollar.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki said the city does not have such an agreement with its school division. Instead, unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year accrue to the city’s unexpended fund balance, as is the case with any other city department that does not spend its full budget amount. “That fund balance is regularly used as a source of revenue to then balance the following year’s budget,” he said.
Clemons noted that city council “has been good about allocating monies for capital improvements” and, in recent history, has not denied any of the division’s funding requests for capital projects.
He said that, in a normal, pre-pandemic year, he would anticipate $250,000-$500,000 in unspent funds. He explained there are hundreds of line items in the division’s budget that do not have exact values, and best practices dictate budgeting conservatively for those unknowns. No one, for example, can predict exactly how much electricity or water a building will consume over a year or budget for it precisely.
Clemons noted that a key word in the description of the bill is “encourages,” meaning the decision to set aside unspent funds is reliant upon a school board and its governing body arriving at an amicable agreement. “The relationship between a school division and the governing body comes into play,” he said.
Another bill in the package allows all localities in Virginia to impose a 1 percent increase in sales tax, subject to voter approval, to be used for school construction or renovation. Currently, that sales tax is only permitted in nine specific localities, including Henry County, where voters chose to implement the tax increase last year.
Hatchett said funds from the tax increase will help the division “achieve some important goals in the area of safe and innovative learning spaces,” which are part of its strategic plan.
Stanley, during previous debate on another piece of legislation he sponsored calling for a voter referendum in Martinsville on the issue of reversion, stated that Martinsville had the opportunity to participate in the 1 percent increase but rejected the offer. “The response was, ‘we don’t want the income,’” Stanley told the Senate Local Government Committee.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday said that he searched his records after Stanley’s claim and found no written communication of the city ever being offered the opportunity to participate in the tax option.
“We’ve looked back, and I don’t see any email record where we were asked if we wanted to do that,” he said.
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson said that no one has contacted the city council “to participate with a proposal that would add another tax to our citizens.”
Further, she said, the tax would go unused for some time because it can only be used for new school construction and renovation, and not to pay down existing debt for previous capital projects.
“The city has updated all our schools in recent years and are currently still repaying the debt for some of those facilities. We have, already in place, the means to pay the debt for our school improvements” through the meals tax. “Since we have already renovated all our facilities and no new construction is pending, this would be a tax that would sit unused for years to come,” she said.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki added that, while all schools are currently “functioning in a satisfactory manner,” future renovations could be needed, “which may be a reason to take up the sales tax issue at a later date.”
Yet another bill, SB 471, adopts changes to the state Literary Fund to make more money available to local school divisions through loans with lower interest rates than currently allowed by law.
Clemons said that the city’s schools likely would not be able to take advantage of that piece of legislation because the division is currently unable to leverage a loan through the city.
“We’ve not been able to leverage and use the Literary Fund for many years now,” he said.
Another bill in the package, SB 473, creates a School Construction Fund and Program to provide grants to school boards that leverage federal, state, and local programs and resources to finance the design and construction of new school buildings and facilities or the modernization and maintenance of existing buildings and facilities.
SB 238 requires the Department of Education, in consultation with the Department of General Services, to develop or adopt and maintain a data collection tool to assist each school board to determine the relative age of each public school building in the local division and the amount of maintenance reserve funds necessary to restore each building.
Clemons noted that stipulations in the fine print of such bills, once they reach their final form, could impact a division’s ability to take advantage of the funding or programs. He added that there have been several instances in which various stipulations in a piece of legislation prevented Martinsville from benefitting from it.
Being in the midst of reversion, too, he said, “dramatically impacts things.”
Hatchett, on the other hand, takes a more optimistic view. She said that Henry County Public Schools “works diligently each year to complete important capital improvements in our schools, as our budget and savings allow.” Funds from this legislative package “would ensure that we are able to accomplish projects more quickly than has been done in the past, which would be of great benefit to the division as we continue to work to maintain and improve our schools.”