Saturday, December 2, 2023

Tidewater, Southwest, Western Regions Biggest Winners on School Construction Grants

RICHMOND — Tidewater and Eastern Shore school divisions, including those in Norfolk and Newport News, are receiving about a quarter of $365 million in grants Virginia is handing out to modernize and repair school buildings as well as construct new ones.

On May 11, the Virginia Board of Education unanimously approved 42 grants to school divisions across the state, chosen from 199 grant applications from 63 districts.

Kathleen Jackson, chief financial officer for Roanoke City Public Schools, which received funding for three projects but fell short on two others, said the funding comes as capital costs remain high due to construction industry supply chain challenges and inflation.

(Virginia Department of Education)

However, Jackson said a grant to replace Preston Park Elementary School will help save the district money by allowing it to proceed quickly with plans instead of dragging them out over several years.

“In all likelihood, we would have had to slow down construction periodically until the next year’s funding was available, greatly extending the amount of time it would take before the new building could be completed and used, and likely increasing overall costs due to the delays,” Jackson said. “Thanks to the SCAP grant, we no longer face that issue and can proceed with the project in a more timely and cost-efficient manner.”

According to VDOE data, the Tidewater/Eastern Shore region received the largest portion of the funds, at $92.1 million. The Southwest and Western divisions received the next-largest allocations of $72.9 million and $72.5 million, respectively.

Notably, the Northern Virginia region received no funds in the first round of school construction awards.

School divisions received awards based on scoring criteria indicating poor building conditions, commitment and need. Harrisonburg, for example, had a “high” fiscal stress designation, indicating it would struggle to generate additional revenue. So did Norfolk, which received the largest grant of the round – $30 million for a $100 million high school construction project.

A map of Virginia’s public schools by region. (Courtesy of Virginia Association of School Superintendents)

Virginia school divisions have few options when it comes to financing the construction of new buildings or repairs to aging structures.

Only nine localities in the state are allowed to impose a tax to pay for school capital projects. Efforts to expand the option to other localities have failed in the General Assembly.

At the same time, many districts are struggling to raise funds to fix and build schools. Data from the Virginia Department of Education have found that roughly half of the school buildings in Virginia are more than 50 years old, with divisions identifying more than $9.8 billion in capital improvements needed.

The grants from the recently created School Construction Fund and Program are intended to help school divisions by paying between 10 and 30% of construction project costs instead of requiring strapped local governments to take on debt they cannot repay. The program will be paid for by appropriations from the general fund and state literary fund, as well as revenues from newly authorized casino gambling in Virginia.

“School construction grants are vital to our continued work of renovating and/or upgrading our school facilities,” said Shawn Printz, chief operating officer at Harrisonburg City Public Schools, which received more than $276,000 to renovate Harrisonburg High School, in an email. Those grants, he said, “lessen the direct impact on our localities and enable us to meet facility needs that might not fall within the Capital Improvement Plan.”

Bristol City Schools plans to build a new intermediate school valued at $25 million. The school division is receiving $7.5 million toward the project.

“This grant is a complete game changer for Bristol,” said Superintendent Keith Perrigan. “The hope of receiving this grant was one of the reasons we were able to gain approval for our unique financing model. As our city deals with the ever-increasing costs of a failed landfill, notification of this award couldn’t have come at a better time.”

The Board of Education completed the new program’s guidelines in January, with applications open from Feb. 24 through March 31.

An additional $84 million in program funding remains and is expected to be used in a second application period later this calendar year and to offset any potential errors in grant calculations.

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