By Taylor Boyd
In early February, the Virginia Senate passed the final three bills in five-bill package that, if approved by the House, would provide pathways for additional funding for school construction.
The bipartisan legislative package was recommended by the Commission on School Construction and Modernization. The commission reported that more than half of K-12 school buildings in Virginia are more than 50-years-old with an estimated $24.8 billion needed to replace the aging buildings.
Many localities face challenges raising significant funds to undertake these projects.
Several of the schools in Patrick County are more than 50 years old including Patrick County High Schools (PCHS) and Patrick Springs Primary School (PSPS). While many, like Meadows of Dan Elementary School and PCHS, have completed large construction projects within the last 15 years, significant work remains to be done within the division’s school buildings.
One of the bills, Senate Bill (SB) 481, encourages local governing bodies and school boards to collaborate to set aside for the purpose of capital projects any funds appropriated to the school board by the local governing body that are not spent by the school board in any year. It also permits any school board to finance capital projects with any funds appropriated to it by the local governing body that are unexpended by the school board in any year.
Patrick County Schools Superintendent Jason Wood said the division is already working with County Administrator Geri Hazelwood about the possibility of having the ability to have carryover funds for capital projects.
“I know in my experience in Henry County that unused funds can be carried over and put into a capital line item that rolls over,” Wood said, adding that he believes this topic will be addressed at a joint budget committee meeting on Feb. 24.
“So, instead of us of feeling like we have to spend down dollar to dollar, we can put unused funds into savings, or if we lost a position that we are unable to fill it, we may have cost savings there that we can put toward a capital improvement line item that would carry over,” he said.
SB 472 which allowed Virginia localities to impose a voter approved 1 percent increase in sales tax to be used solely for school construction and renovation was approved by Patrick voters in 2020. As of December 2021, more than $400,000 has been raised for capital projects, Wood said.
“So, that is already going to be a huge benefit for our school division because we are ahead of the game on Senate Bill 472,” he said.
Wood said the school system is not interested in pursuing SB 471 or SB 473.
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. 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 school buildings and facilities.
“With our enrollment kind of leveled off and staying steady, we do not perceive that we would need to go through a construction fund program or the Literary Funds to borrow money. We want to utilize our ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) grants” and other grants for future projects, he said.
Another bill in the package, 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 school division and the amount of maintenance reserve funds that are necessary to restore each such building.
Wood said the school division already submits the ages of its schools annually. “That’s part of our school security grant. We maintain the age of our buildings and square footage of our buildings anyway to participate in some of the grant funding opportunities that we solicit every year. That would be nothing new that we are not already doing,” he said.