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Sales tax bill to fund new schools in Roanoke County and beyond passes first test

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Burton Center for Arts and Technology

Roanoke County is proceeding with a plan to replace the aged Burton Center for Arts and Technology—and a General Assembly bill could provide funding.

RICHMOND — A bill supported by Roanoke County could allow an extra 1% sales tax to help fund new school construction, as approved by a committee of state senators on Wednesday.

Seeking a way to pay for at least $150 million in necessary school construction, Roanoke County leaders last year discussed the possibility of a 1% increase to the local sales tax. If passed into law, Senate Bill 472 would allow all counties and cities to levy such a tax, only if approved by local voters via a referendum.

While planning continues on replacing Roanoke County’s Burton Center for Arts and Technology, an aged career and technical education center located in Salem, other Southwest Virginia school divisions are similarly pondering how to finance crumbling schools.

Roanoke County Legislative Liaison Eldon James voiced support for SB 472 to the 16-member Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriations during its meeting in Richmond Wednesday morning.

“This bill offers an opportunity for the county to put this option before the voters,” James said. “Especially when considering the urgent need to replace the CTE school that was constructed in 1962, and is woefully out of date and undersized.”

Presently, nine localities elsewhere in Virginia have special permission from the General Assembly to boost sales tax for school buildings. SB 472 removes the need for that special permission, leaving it up to counties, cities and their voting citizens.

SB 472 aligns with one recommendation that came from the Virginia Commission on School Construction and Modernization, said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who introduced the bill and sat on the committee.

“The commission adopted about seven recommendations because we wanted to have multiple tools in the toolbox,” McClellan said. “For some localities, the sales tax will be the solution. In other localities… we’ve got six more options for the General Assembly to consider.”

In Virginia, more than half of school buildings are beyond 50 years old, according to the commission’s findings, McClellan said. Statewide, schools need more than $9.8 billion worth of construction and renovation work.

Having cleared the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday morning on a 14-2 vote, SB 472 will next be reported to the 40-member Virginia Senate for deliberation. If it passes votes the Senate, the 100-member House of Delegates will have to approve it before a signature from Gov. Glenn Youngkin could turn it into law.

And even then, if Roanoke County decides it indeed wants to increase local sales tax to support new school construction, a majority of voters will have to approve any changes in taxation.

An equivalent bill, HB 531, is also filed in the House, with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, listed as one of the patrons. That bill remains in the hands of delegates serving on the House Finance Committee.

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Luke Weir covers higher education and state government. He can be reached at (540) 566-8917 or luke.weir@roanoke.com

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