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Virginia's schools are crumbling. How did the state get here?

Virginia Middle School
Bristol Virginia Public Schools
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Virginia Middle School in Bristol was built in 1916.

Around the state, Virginia students are attending class in buildings with leaking roofs, crumbling walls, and outdated HVAC units. It’s a problem state lawmakers know about, but can’t seem to agree on how to fix.

Bristol Superintendent Keith Perrigan is president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, and a member of the state commission on school construction and modernization. According to the commission’s research, more than half of school buildings in Virginia are over 50 years old.

“I’ll just use Bristol as an example,” Perrigan describes. “We have six buildings in our division. The newest was built in ‘74. So it’s 49 years old. The remaining schools that we have are well older than that. We have one school that was built in 1916. So 106 years old now.”

Half the schools in the division aren’t handicap accessible.

“We have issues with moisture infiltration. Radon. Asbestos,” Perrigan lists. “Just a whole bunch of issues that we deal with, and our kids deal with, and they really shouldn’t have to.”

Fixing the problems are tough for a locality like Bristol, where finances are tight. That’s because in Virginia the responsibility for paying for new and improved school buildings falls almost entirely to local governments. The state contributes just 10% of the cost.

That’s not much – compared to other states. In West Virginia, the state pays almost half. In Maryland, about a third.

So how were Virginia’s schools paid for in the first place?

First, through massive investment at the federal level. But that was in the 1930’s as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression. A second large investment came again in the 1950’s, from the state.

But a similar large one-time investment hasn’t happened since.

“And so those buildings that were built in the late 50’s, early 60’s, are now coming of age to where it’s time to do replacements,” says Perrigan. “And a lot of high poverty localities just don’t have the resources to do that.”

Local governments raise most of their money through property taxes. That means that areas without high-value real estate just have less in the bank. And one of the only ways to raise more is to raise property taxes.

That’s what Brunswick County, in southside, recently did. They raised property taxes by 11-cents in order to fund construction on a new school.

“Whenever you’re in a high poverty locality like Brunswick that has a huge impact on taxpayers,” says Perrigan. “And so I think one of the big reasons that localities have postponed doing that is because, you know the economy since 2009, until recently has been very stagnant and it’s had a negative impact on citizens and taxpayers. And so to ask them to chip in more at the local level has been very difficult to do.”

Most of the time, localities use their revenue to back up bond packages. That allows them to essentially borrow enough capital for a big construction project. But, once again, poorer localities - including Bristol - don’t have the capacity to take on more debt. And then those that do, still have to put such a package to the voters.

“Counties must go through a referendum,” explains Perrigan. He gives two examples: Pulaski County and Lee County.

In Pulaski voters approved a bond package for school construction. But in Lee, they didn’t.

“Lee County is kind of in the situation where they need to build some new schools, or build a new school at least, and they don’t have the local capacity or even ability to do that without some state assistance,” says Perrigan.

Of course having the state government help pay is still spending taxpayer dollars. But it’s a redistribution of those dollars from all over the state, including the relatively wealthier suburbs of D.C.

This year, lawmakers have agreed to chip in more of those state dollars. They’re still wrangling the details. Mainly: whether to provide local governments with half a billion dollars in grants, or up to two billion dollars in loans. 

Either falls well short of the estimated $25 billion dollar price tag – of providing ALL Virginia students a school built in the past half century.

Still, Perrigan says something is always better than nothing.

“It’s just like eating an elephant,” he says. “You just take one bite at a time and you work your way through it. And if we don’t take the first step we’ll never get there.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.