‘A dire situation:’ Aging Virginia schools want COVID relief funds to cover construction costs

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-More than half of the state’s school buildings are more than 50 years old and the price tag of a total replacement would be nearly $25 billion, according to a new survey conducted by the Virginia Department of Education. 

The results were presented to the General Assembly’s Commission on School Construction and Modernization on Thursday morning. Members of the group called it the most comprehensive look at school infrastructure problems since 2013.   

Bristol City Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Perrigan, who also serves as President for the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, said the findings represent little progress since the last time this data was collected. 

“We are in much more of a dire situation than I ever imagined,” Perrigan said in an interview after the meeting. “The needle has not moved at all.”

It comes amid a bipartisan push to increase state spending on this issue and as some school districts are hoping to tap into federal coronavirus relief funds to offset the cost of long-overdue construction needs.   

“It’s a moonshot opportunity, especially for high poverty school divisions,” Perrigan said. 

The VDOE survey was based on self reporting from 128 of 132 school divisions, accounting for 97 percent of about 2,005 school buildings, according to State Superintendent Dr. James Lane.

State Sen. Jennifer McClella, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who also chairs the commission, said the theoretical $25 billion estimate for a total rebuild of the state’s oldest schools doesn’t include the cost of renovations elsewhere. 

For example, the survey also found that at least 19 percent of Virginia’s school buildings are not currently in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It says fixing that would cost nearly $205 million.  

“I’ve seen a fifth grader have to transfer schools after she broke her leg because the school was not ADA compliant and she couldn’t get in the building…I’ve seen schools have mold in ceiling tiles and leaky roofs,” McClellan said. “Kids can’t learn in buildings that aren’t conducive to learning.”

The question remains: Where will the money come from? 

The Commission is expected to come out with a report mapping out various revenue streams ahead of the 2022 legislative session.

In the meantime, there is a growing push to take advantage of the massive pot of funds Congress has allocated to states, localities and school districts throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

For now, the federal government is “discouraging” the use of that money for constructing new school buildings, according to Lane. He said that’s partly because much of the funding would have to be spent in a time frame that is unrealistic for most projects of that scale, though there may be some exceptions. 

Instead, Lane said federal guidelines advise schools to use the money for renovations that can be tied to coronavirus prevention, such as air quality improvements. 

The survey found 62 percent of school districts have completed at least one HVAC renovation since March 2020, when Virginia schools first shut down last year. It said 12 percent of responding divisions have no planned HVAC projects in response to COVID-19. 

In the near future, the federal government is expected to issue new guidance for how states should spend additional funds allocated in the American Rescue Plan, which is Congress’s latest relief package. 

Perrigan wants to see more flexibility for schools when that time comes. 

“We need flexibility so that we’re not just forced to take good money and put it into bad buildings,” Perrigan said. “The stipulations that are being put on spending this federal money are very restrictive and so we’re going to have a hard time following those guidelines and spending it in a timely manner.” 

The General Assembly is expected to convene later this summer to decide how much money from the American Rescue Plan should go towards school construction, among other priorities. The state is also responsible for approving each project intending to use federal dollars to make sure localities are acting within the spending rules. 

McClellan doesn’t expect coronavirus relief funds alone to meet the need statewide but she thinks the infrastructure deal being negotiated by President Joe Biden’s Administration could make a big dent. 

“The last time we saw a big focus on infrastructure at the federal and state level was in response to the Depression and this is now the worst economic crisis since then. If ever there was a time to meet our infrastructure needs, it’s now,” McClellan said.

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