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Editorial: Virginia should use its federal stimulus money for school construction

Editorial: Virginia should use its federal stimulus money for school construction

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Virginia is about to get a windfall of $3.8 billion, the state’s share of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that Congress recently passed and President Joe Biden signed into law.

There’s a technical term for what’s about to happen when it comes to figuring out how to spend that money. It’s called a feeding frenzy.

It’s not every day that someone throws $3.8 billion into the state legislature and says “here, spend this.” Some Republicans may want to use that money to give Virginians a tax refund. Other legislators — Republican and Democrat — will have their own list of spending priorities.

We hate to be predictable but we have our own idea on how to spend this money. Virginia should use these unexpected billions to pay for school construction.

We’ve written so much about this that by now you should have these facts and figures committed to memory. When Bob McDonnell was governor in 2013, his administration tallied up the estimated construction needs at Virginia’s public schools and came up with $18 billion.

Over the years there have been occasional horror stories about the sorry physical condition of many Virginia schools.

In Richmond, a five-pound piece of tile fell from the ceiling at George Mason Elementary and hit a student on the head.

In Norfolk, a 750-pound chunk of ceiling collapsed during a band concert at Maury High School.

For a time in Lee County, students and teachers had to set out trash cans whenever it rained to catch the rainwater dripping through the roof. Those roofs have since been fixed, but that’s $700,000 that didn’t get spent on instruction in one of the poorest counties in the state.

And those are just the more outrageous examples. They don’t cover the day-to-day routines at many schools.

In Lee County (and probably other places), schools are trying to teach cybersecurity but have to worry about the electrical system shorting out because the buildings weren’t built for that kind of electrical usage.

At Radford High School, sports teams don’t even have access to showers in the main gym locker rooms; the showers have been closed for years due to age. Neither the gym nor the cafeteria have air conditioning. Radford’s not alone; it’s not unusual for some rural schools to let out early on some days because the temperatures are simply too hot.

State leaders have not shown the sense of urgency that the situation demands; we suspect because many of those state leaders are now from the most affluent part of the state and Northern Virginia doesn’t have to worry about these kind of dire conditions.

Gov. Ralph Northam bemoaned “crumbling stores” in his inaugural address but his main solution — using state revenues from the casinos coming to Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk — won’t kick in for years yet.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, one of the many Democrats who would like to succeed Northam, last year sponsored legislation to create a state commission on school construction and modernization. In theory, that’s a good idea — but a year later, the commission has yet to meet, and Northam hasn’t named his representative to the panel.

You’d think Democrats — who profess great concern about public schools, and seem less concerned about spending money — would embrace this issue with gusto.

Instead, Democrats from Northern Virginia have made it a point to kill every measure that has come before them.

In the greatest of ironies, it’s a conservative Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County — who has become the champion for a dramatic increase in state support for school construction. The world is truly turned upside down.

Stanley’s main proposal — which has passed the state Senate with wide and bipartisan support this year before being killed in the House Appropriations Committee — was for a statewide referendum for a $3 billion bond issue for school construction. That’s why the $3.8 billion Virginia is about to get from the federal government presents such an intriguing opportunity.

We don’t need to wait for a bond issue, which would take years to play out anyway. Here’s that $3 billion (and more) right now. We could fix this problem (or at least start to fix it) right now. An opportunity like this will not come around again.

Yes, we understand there are 140 legislators with probably 140 different priorities. But from where we sit, here’s the political beauty of using at least $3 billion of that $3.8 billion for school construction: Everybody would get to claim credit.

Northam came into office pledging to fix those “crumbling schools.” He could leave office having checked off that box in a major way.

McClellan wants to position herself as the schools champion; she should be calling for this and pointing to her commission as the vehicle to administer these funds.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe keeps talking up “big and bold” proposals — but his proposals aren’t so “big and bold” as to deal with school construction or school disparity. Here’s a way to fix that.

Some, such as state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, have been cool toward a bond issue because they worry about maxing out the state’s bond capacity. A legitimate concern — but one they don’t have to worry about here. The state wouldn’t have to borrow this money; it’s been given the money.

There are old schools in every part of the state — yes, even Northern Virginia — so this money would get distributed across Virginia, which would mean construction jobs across Virginia.

There’s some economic stimulus.

The localities least able to pay for new schools, though, are rural localities and central cities. The former are represented almost exclusively by Republicans, which is why Republicans ought to be getting behind using this money for school construction. This would benefit a lot of strongly Republican communities and without a tax increase.

For Democrats concerned about social justice, where’s the social justice in those schools in schools in Richmond and Norfolk that are literally falling apart? It shouldn’t be lost on anyone the two schools with the most dramatic problems serve overwhelmingly non-white student populations.

When Northern Virginia Democrats complain that the state shouldn’t get more involved in school construction, that smacks of — dare we say it? — white privilege. Here’s an easy way to fix that and it won’t cost their constituents a cent the way paying for a bond issue would.

Let’s turn the question around: If Virginia passes up this opportunity to fix up its schools, essentially for free, what will that say?

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