The reconfiguration of Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary School is an infrastructure project Charlottesville officials have wanted to pursue for years. With an architecture firm attached to the project, the next question is: how do we fund this?
Now, bills working their way through the General Assembly may be the answer.
But can they pass? Some have already cleared the Senate, and will need to advance through the House of Delegates and be signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“The whole guessing game now is what the House of Delegates is gonna do,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who carried a bill that passed in the Senate this week.
This week, Virginia’s state Senate passed a bill from Deeds that would add Charlottesville to a list of nine localities that can levy sales taxes for school construction projects. Additionally, the Senate passed a related bill by Sen. Jennifer McCllelan, D-Richmond, that would make it possible for every locality in the state to do so should those localities pass the increase as a local referendum.
They’re not alone in tackling school funding issues either. In the House, Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlotesville, has a bill that mirrors Deeds’ Senate version. It will be heard in the House’s Finance subcommittee Friday morning. Across the political aisle, Republican delegate Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, has a bill that is the House counterpart to McClellan’s Senate bill.
Noting the similar bill that LaRock later filed, McClellan said she is “encouraged by the bipartisan support.”
“I look forward to working with Del. LaRock to pass a similar local sales tax option bill through the House,” she said in a statement.
With bipartisan interest, Hudson feels it is safe to assume the legislation may fare well in both chambers.
“I think the message to take away is that there is strong bipartisan support in both chambers, and I think that we have finally started to make that case,” Hudson said.
Should the legislation make its way to Gov. Youngkin, his spokesperson said that he will “review all legislation that comes to his desk.”
That change in law could position Charlottesville for its long-awaited school reconfiguration project.
The fight to get funding for reconfiguration have gone on for decades, said Lisa Larson-Torres, board chair for Charlottesville City Schools. Discussions about building the middle schools have been regularly tabled for various issues, such as the 2008 recession and low enrollment.
“There’s a long, long history, but as far as the buildings themselves, they’re really antiquated,” Larson-Torres said. “It’s a want and need for those of us in the school division.”
Despite being unsure how they would pay for it, in October of last year, Charlottesville City Council directed architecture firm VMDO to create plans for a $75 million dollar project. The firm is expected to present it to Council in March. If approved, the project could start in 2023.
Both Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary school were built more than 50 years ago. They are now antiquated facilities and have fallen into disrepair, school officials say.
Such crumbling infrastructure is an issue for many schools, statewide.
According to a study by the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, more than 1,000 schools in Virginia are more than 50 years old and local governments have had difficulties raising funds for reconstruction projects.
Usually localities leverage revenue from property taxes for school infrastructure projects, but that isn’t always a sufficient revenue source.
In Charlottesville’s case, officials are concerned that a property tax would be burdensome on city homeowners.
While the changes can yield more immediate benefits for cities and counties that wish to increase their sales taxes for projects, Del. Hudson said she wants to continue exploring state-level tax reform — like income taxes and corporate income taxes — as other ways to generate revenue.
Though Hudson called the process of funding school construction through sales tax increases “nobody’s perfect proposal,” she said that it’s a decent enough solution for localities that need to use revenue from sales tax increases. She said it’s also something that can show successful bipartisanship as Virginia reconciles with split-party control in the legislature.
“Sales taxes are also not a perfect way of funding school construction. I would rather see this revenue come from more comprehensive tax reform at the state level, but I think that communities like ours are tired of waiting,” said Hudson, who lives in Charlottesville.
“We should think of this as a stop-gap measure and not the best way to fund school construction,” Hudson continued. “But if we can continue building the coalition to do that more foundational work in Richmond then this sales tax measure could be repealed. What I would like to do is have us pursue both strategies in tandem.”