BRISTOL, Va. — Deep inside the bowels of Highland View Elementary lies the 84-year-old school’s original boiler, a wall filled with electrical panels served by an aging nest of wires that carry power throughout the building and a sign on a vent warning “Danger: asbestos.”
When former Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently toured the space, he was admonished “not to touch anything.”
The Virginia Department of Education recommended that the city close Highland View in 1999 because it reached the end of its functional life. Some 22 years later, the school — which serves many of the city’s most economically challenged families — continues operating with no end in sight.
It has undergone a series of upgrades to address air quality, water quality, a leaking roof, handicapped accessibility and other issues. The Bristol Virginia School Board has worked for more than a decade to establish a replacement, but the money has never been available.
Virginia is full of Highland Views.
A new report by the Virginia Department of Education reveals 1,040 of the state’s 2,005 school buildings are 50 or more years old. That includes 55% of all Virginia elementary schools, 45% of middle schools and 46% of all high schools.
“An old building is not necessarily a bad building,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said last week during his presentation to the Virginia Coalition of Small and Rural Schools virtual summit on school infrastructure. “Have those schools been upgraded or renovated to modern standards? How well maintained are those buildings? Frankly, with the budget cuts we’ve faced since the recession that’s been more challenging.”
Bristol and Southwest Virginia
Ninety-five of 131 schools across the 10 counties and two cities of far Southwest Virginia, or 72%, are 50 or more years old and 17 — including Highland View — are 80 or more years old.
Bristol’s six-school fleet has this region’s highest median age — 70 years. Virginia Middle School has been in constant operation for 107 years and is the state’s seventh oldest public school building. It is one of 19 Virginia schools that are a century or more old and the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Five of the city’s six schools are over 50 and its newest school, Van Pelt Elementary, opened in 1975, making it 46.
For perspective, Bristol’s 70-year median school age ranks fifth oldest among the entire state’s 133 school divisions. Bristol is tied with the city of Martinsville and King and Queen County. Bland County schools rank as the oldest with a median age of 82.5 years. Patrick County is second at 82, while Floyd and Grayson counties are tied for third at 75.5 years each.
Lee, Russell and Wythe counties all rank among the state’s 10 oldest school fleets, each with a median building age of 68 years old.
Ten of Lee County’s 11 schools are 50 or older, with the oldest being 84 and the newest 32. Eight of Russell County’s 11 school buildings are 50 or older and the oldest is 82. In Wythe County, 11 of 13 schools are over 50 and the oldest is 86.
Wise and Dickenson counties have some of the region’s lowest median school ages at 44 and 47.5, respectively. Both systems replaced a number of older schools over the past decade.
Funding school construction
In simplest terms, schools are so old because they’re expensive to replace.
The challenge of securing funding for school construction is as old or older than many of the buildings. State and federal sources have been in and out of the game over the past century. Many of the current schools were built in the 1930s and early 1940s through the federal Works Progress Administration.
Often, it is left up to localities to raise taxes high enough to support school construction.
Dating back to the 1980s, Virginia allocated tens of millions of dollars in state aid for school construction grants, but that pool dried up during the recession of 2008-09.
Present state financial support for school capital projects is limited to loan programs and a portion of the state lottery funding. During fiscal year 2019-20, school divisions reported $1.1 billion in capital spending costs, $476 million in debt service costs and $7.1 billion in outstanding debt — all on school facilities.
That may be changing.
In the wake of a blizzard of federal dollars aimed at righting the wrongs created by the novel coronavirus pandemic, school officials and lawmakers are discussing how some of the most recent round of funds could be channeled toward school construction and — if the state could again dedicate funding for schools — how that might look.
The new state report provides a couple of jumping off points.
It would cost an estimated $24.7 billion to replace all of the state’s 1,040 schools that are 50 years or older — if that much money were available, Lane said.
Secondly, there are currently 81 new schools on capital improvement budgets in localities around the state with a combined cost of $3.8 billion. An additional 566 renovation projects on the drawing board are expected to cost $3.3 billion. Of those 81 planned new schools, the overwhelming majority are in densely populated, affluent areas with a substantial tax base. Thirty-one are in northern Virginia, 17 in central Virginia and 16 in the Tidewater area, while just two are planned in Southwest Virginia.
Today, eight new public schools are being built in Virginia, at a combined cost of $410 million, according to the Department of Education. Three are in the city of Richmond, two are in adjoining Henrico County, one is in nearby New Kent County and the other in the city of Chesapeake.
More than 50 major renovation projects totaling an additional $410 million are also underway in larger areas, including Fairfax, Lynchburg and Roanoke. The lone project underway in far Southwest Virginia is a $12 million renovation at George Wythe High School, according to the state Department of Education.
The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to convene an August special session to discuss spending $3.8 billion from the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. Last week, rural schools coalition President Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools, termed this a “moonshot moment” in urging lawmakers to designate those funds for school construction needs.
“We have known for a long time that school infrastructure in Virginia is in bad shape,” Perrigan said during the summit. “It is actually worse than many of us thought, especially in rural Virginia. With an influx of federal dollars like nothing I have ever experienced and bipartisan support for this issue in our General Assembly, we have a moonshot moment to make decisions and affect budget and policy that will have a multi-generational impact.”
The $3.8 billion offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to modernize schools, use one-time money that could pay long-term dividends, improve the health and safety for generations and jump-start local economies with good-paying construction jobs across the state, according to a coalition document.
It urges that the funding be allocated using the state’s existing “at-risk, add-on” formula, which accounts for student poverty, rather than just relying on the composite index of each locality.
Perrigan said it would be wrong for the federal government to force school systems to invest heavily in fixing up older buildings in poor condition as opposed to building new, more efficient facilities.
During the summit, several speakers touched on a requirement that some federal funding be spent by 2024, while other funds could be spent up until 2026.
State Superintendent Lane said it isn’t advisable to consider the COVID relief monies because of the short time frame to spend the money, but Perrigan suggested the federal requirements could be modified.
State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, also participated in the summit and voiced her support for both using the federal dollars and state funds to assist school divisions.
“I know there is optimism the federal government may give us more permissibility to use this for new builds, but I think the real snag is we have to have the construction done by 2024,” Dunnavant said. “We need to be looking at the outcome metrics, and there is great evidence to show that new school buildings, for children, improve attendance, test scores and they improve overall grades.”
Dunnavant said an investment, such as Bristol, Virginia is proposing to close three older schools and replace them with one new building, makes good fiscal sense.
She also called the one-time federal dollars a “gift” that should be invested in new buildings
“I think there’s a lot we can do. The key is making the point that school construction is not a luxury. That it is an absolute necessity and — if we want the outcomes we’re asking our K-12 education to provide us — we have to be a part of that solution with buildings,” Dunnavant said.
State Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, also voiced support for deploying the federal money, but urged schools to use previously released funds to pay for items like heating and air system upgrades, window or roof replacement — since all are approved uses.
“I think it’s important not to duplicate what is available through existing federal funding and that way we can stretch the playing field,” O’Quinn said.
He added that many localities can’t assume the debt needed to replace buildings.
“If you come from a small or rural school division, and sometimes if you don’t, you know your local governments just don’t have the ability,” O’Quinn said. “They cannot raise property taxes high enough to cover this shortfall. This is a huge opportunity making sure we’re not being redundant or replicating things we can already pay for through other funding mechanisms is key to stretching this out.”
New state commission
The General Assembly’s recently formed Commission on School Construction and Modernization is working to get its arms around the issue, according to its chairwoman, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who participated in the summit along with Vice Chairman Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg.
“We are going to have to find a long-term, dedicated funding stream from the state level, which we used to provide,” McLellan said, noting the $24.7 billion, $3.8 billion and $3.3 billion figures cited in the new state report.
“This is a huge amount of money. We can’t leave this to local governments, but we’re not getting enough from the federal government. We, at the state level, are going to have to figure out what is the right mix for us to get as much in now up front for new schools and renovation. Frankly, we are going to need your help prioritizing because we are not going to be able to meet that full list,” she said.
Hurst called the application of the $3.8 billion in federal funds a “drop in the bucket.”
“I want to make sure we get that process right and make sure we have buy-in from everybody in the state that we can appropriate government funds for school construction in a meaningful way and have that be more of a down payment on the longer conversation,” Hurst said. “What are some things we used to do in Virginia we might bring back again, and what are some new things that we can do to try and help school divisions with affordability and debt service? All of those are part of a meaningful conversation that wasn’t really with us a few years ago.”
The 17-member commission includes five House delegates, three senators, three citizen members and six non-voting members. Perrigan is one of three citizen members and Lane is one of the six non-voting members.
Not every school in Southwest Virginia is on its last legs. Haydee Robinson was named superintendent of Dickenson County schools in 2009, and her first assignment was to secure funding for new schools.
In her comments during Thursday’s summit, Robinson recalled being met with laughter that fall after approaching officials of the poor, rural county, who told her there was no money for new school construction and likely would never be.
Less than six years later — in August 2015 — some of those same officials participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the consolidated Ridgeview High School complex in Clintwood. The system consolidated three smaller, run down high schools, a career center and a middle school onto a single campus.
The change has been transformational, Robinson said during the summit.
“The school very quickly became the community, and that’s what we’ve always wanted there,” she said.
Because several county schools were located in flood zones, Robinson was able to secure $110 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The county only had to provide a 5% match or $5.5 million.
Robinson said the Board of Supervisors, School Board and Industrial Development Authority were united in the lengthy process, but some members of the community were resistant because they didn’t want schools closed.
“We were in a meeting, and a parent said, ‘Our children don’t need those fancy schools.’ We were working with such extremes,” Robinson said, adding that county taxes never went up due to the school construction and the division’s utility bills decreased.
Students went from having no hot water in school bathrooms, no track to run on, mediocre facilities, limited course offerings and different course options at different high schools, to a state-of-the-art complex that consolidated all the sports facilities onto a single campus and includes the county’s only stretch of four-lane highway.
“Test scores aren’t everything. But before Ridgeview, Dickenson County was probably [ranked] 120 or 125 out of 133 in SOL [Standards of Learning] scores. In the years before [COVID], we were in the top 25,” she said.
“During the design process, I told the architect I want children — when they first see Ridgeview — to think, if I work I can do anything because of this school. I hope children still get that feeling.”
Bristol’s elementary conundrum
In 2011, the Bristol Virginia School Board voted its intent to close the city’s three oldest, most outdated elementary schools — Highland View, Stonewall Jackson and Washington-Lee — and replace them with a single consolidated school.
Multiple iterations of school boards and three superintendents have failed to generate sufficient support to execute the plan while, at that same time, former city officials were immersed in borrowing more than $50 million to try and develop a shopping center.
Much like Robinson, one of Perrigan’s initial directives was to move the school project forward.
In 2017, Perrigan first proposed an alternative funding plan under which a developer would pay to build the school and then lease the building back to the city and board, who would repay that amount over time, primarily through savings generated by closing older, inefficient buildings and lower staffing costs. A split council ultimately approved the plan in 2019, but it was put on indefinite hold to research potentially better funding. It remained on the back burner due to the pandemic, but school officials resumed discussions earlier this year.
Besides concerns about the cost and the city’s precarious long-term debt, the public and City Council voiced concerns over the proposed location adjacent to Van Pelt Elementary, parental access and losing the “feel” and proximity of neighborhood schools.
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