By David A. Reid
Being born and raised in Rockbridge County, whenever there is a discussion of the issues facing rural Virginia, it’s hard not to remember my own upbringing or think of family and friends I still have living in the mountains.
As I have traveled the state over the past 18 months as Chairman of the Commonwealth Manufacturing Development Commission, I have had the opportunity to speak with people on a wide range of topics. Invariably, a long-neglected issue comes up in conversation.
Whether expressed as a concern for the basic educational needs of their children or as a way to make the community an attractive location for new businesses, building schools is at the forefront of concerns for parents and policy makers. across the Commonwealth.
In 2020, we finally started to really understand the full extent of the problem.
The Democratic-led General Assembly took action by passing Senate Bill 888, which created the Commission on School Construction and Modernization. This commission has now completed its analysis, made more than half a dozen recommendations and identified 322 school projects that would cost approximately $3.2 billion more than current capital plans.
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As a result of this study, outgoing Governor Ralph Northam proposed $500 million for school construction in his final budget. While this is commendable and 10 times more than any previous state commitment, it is insufficient. More than half of the state’s 2,000 public school buildings are over 50 years old, and the total cost to fix the problem could be closer to $25 billion.
Every budget we pass is about our shared priorities and a vision of what we want for Virginia’s future. With more than $13.4 billion in projected surpluses over the next three years, we must seize a unique opportunity to tackle the long-ignored issue of school construction.
In 2014, then Governor. Terry McAuliffe worked with a Republican-led General Assembly to create Virginia’s nationally recognized Smart Scale program and make apolitical decisions about transportation funding. Until then, limited tax funds for transportation were shifted by political winds in Richmond, resulting in questionable investment decisions being made to meet Virginia’s critical transportation needs.
In the 2022 session, I will borrow from the successes of the Smart Scale concept and introduce two budget amendments: one to develop a “Smart Scale for School Construction Program” and another to capitalize a “Smart Scale for School Construction Fund” with $6 billion of the $13.4 billion surplus. We can build on Northam’s proposed $500 million investment to reach my $6 billion proposal with only a few budget changes. And these proposed changes will not negatively affect Virginia’s AAA bond rating.
First, start with Northam’s proposed $500 million for school construction and add the $564 million currently allocated as a voluntary deposit to reserve funds. The change would leave them well ahead of the target set by Northam when he first took office.
Second, the Northam team offered to pay cash for capital improvements that could be paid for with Virginia’s low-interest AAA bonds. By backing these capital investments instead of using cash, it provides an additional $2.8 billion that could be redirected to building schools.
These two changes, along with $2.1 billion from other parts of the state’s $13.4 billion surplus, would capitalize the “SMART Scale for School Construction Fund” with $6 billion in grants. . This, combined with an equal amount of local funding, could provide $12 billion to solve a $25 billion problem.
Creating a data-driven prioritization process for school construction, as we did for transportation, will take politics and regionalism out of the discussion. Instead, we will be able to focus our limited tax revenue on the communities that need it most.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish a well-defined, non-partisan process. Combined with an unprecedented surplus, we can finally solve the problem of building schools and provide children across the Commonwealth with a healthy and modern learning environment.
David Reid, D-Loudoun, represents the 32nd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact him at: [email protected]