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Federal funding restrictions could force schools to spend millions improving buildings that should be replaced

A touf of the construction of the new Highland Springs High School in Henrico, estimated to...
A touf of the construction of the new Highland Springs High School in Henrico, estimated to cost about $80 million.(Henrico County Public Schools)
Published: Jun. 6, 2021 at 10:29 PM EDT
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Virginia schools received nearly $2 billion from the federal government in its latest round of COVID-19 relief funding for public education.

But while current guidance allows that money to pay for pandemic-related improvements — including new HVAC systems, window repairs or replacing carpeted areas with tile — it strongly discourages new school construction, according to James Lane, the state’s superintendent for public instruction. Local administrators are worried those restrictions could lead to millions of dollars in spending on school buildings that should be replaced.

“Outside of teacher pay, I can’t imagine there’s a bigger need for public education in the state than school construction,” said Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools and president of the Coalition for Small and Rural Schools of Virginia. “So the fact that we may be forced into a situation where we put good money into old buildings is very frustrating for us.”

It’s an issue that’s become especially resonant as state legislators consider how to address years of underfunding in public school infrastructure. School construction is a perennial debate in the state’s General Assembly, but the most recent session led to the formation of a committee specifically tasked with studying the issue.

At a Thursday meeting, Lane presented new information on the state’s current building inventory — the first time data has been updated since a 2013 study ordered by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell. A survey of nearly every local division found that more than half of all school buildings are more than 50 years old (the state’s oldest facility was built 184 years ago, according to the Virginia Department of Education).

Eight years ago, VDOE estimated it would cost roughly $18 billion to renovate all schools more than 30 years old. The department’s latest survey now estimates it would cost the state more than $24.7 billion to fully replace every building more than 50 years old.

“When we surveyed school divisions, there were more than 1,000 buildings that met that criteria,” Lane told legislators. Some of those could potentially be renovated rather than fully replaced, he said. But a review of capital spending by local districts over the last decade indicated that renovations and additions were only slightly less expensive — and generally don’t last as long as a newly constructed facility.

“I would not assume you’d get the same longevity out of renovation as you would with a brand-new school,” Lane said.

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