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Opinion

Falling down

SoVaNow.com / July 07, 2021
In a few weeks the Crumbling Schools Tour will swing through Southside Virginia, stopping off at Halifax County High School in South Boston as the group highlights the deplorable condition of school facilities in rural and low-income areas of Virginia. The tour organizers have chosen their targets well: in Halifax County High School, guests will be able to view a facility that was built badly in the late 1970s and has aged about as well as another icon of the era, the dance floor leisure suit.

Whatever concerns the tour may stir regarding any particular school (the South Boston tour date is set for July 22), they’re outweighed by questions about the production itself. Is the Crumbling Schools Tour a meaningful exercise in dramatizing educational inequities in Virginia? Or is it a pointless dog-and-pony show? The evidence thus far — manifested over decades of inaction in confronting Virginia’s school infrastructure woes — points to the latter. But could this time be different? Let’s take a look.

First, the scope of the problem is enormous: According to the Virginia Department of Education, half of Virginia’s school buildings are 50 years old or older, and 41% are either at or above capacity. On average, nearly 60 percent of school buildings in our neck of the woods — VDOE’s Region 8, encompassing 12 counties in Southside and south-central Virginia — have been in operation for a half-century or longer. Local school divisions across Virginia, without much financial help from the state or federal government, spent almost $7.4 billion over the past 12 years either constructing new schools or renovating and expanding existing schools. In most cases, the call to action became too pressing to ignore.

Despite these investments, demand for new school infrastructure has only snowballed: replacing all of Virginia’s schools that are 50 years old and up would cost nearly $25 billion if the work began today. What will the cost be once roofs collapse and walls crumble and unavoidable reality kicks in?

The ugly details are spelled out quite nicely in a report VDOE issued in June, titled “Needs and Conditions of Virginia School Buildings.” (Anyone inclined to read through all 72 pages can find the report at https://studies.virginiageneralassembly.gov/meetings/1208). Yet for all the considerable rigor that goes into these studies, the fundamental question is rarely confronted head-on: Who’s gonna pay?

The VDOE report, prepared for the Commission on School Construction and Modernization (which was authorized by the Virginia General Assembly, because nothing screams “we’re on the problem” quite like the formation of a commission) does offer a good deal of history on just how we got here. I did not know, for instance, that in the late 1930s, Virginia under Byrd Machine rule cut out assistance to localities to pay for new school construction in exchange for bearing the full expense for roadways and highways. (Which, to be clear, is something else the Commonwealth hasn’t done very well.) The VDOE report also casts light on a brief period in the 1950s when Virginia did help finance a wave of new school construction, giving us facilities that live on today, antiquated but active. Aside from the occasional pot of money set aside for school construction here and there, state and federal governments have pretty much left localities to fend for themselves as they try to fix outdated schools.

And let’s be clear on this much, too: many localities haven’t exactly distinguished themselves with said fixes, to the extent they’ve acted at all. Southside Virginia is home to some of the worst laggards — Mecklenburg being among them, although the county is making welcome (if overdue) progress by replacing its woeful middle schools and high schools with the Baskerville secondary school complex, now under construction. As documented by VDOE, Region 8 school divisions (encompassing an area from Halifax to Buckingham to Greensville counties) have underperformed every other part of the state, including our more destitute neighbors in Southwest Virginia, in terms of investing in new school infrastructure since 2015.

We can and ought to do better — which is something that Halifax County voters, much to their credit, recognized in 2019 when they approved a 1 percent local option sales tax to pay for a new high school. (The referendum passed by a 71-29 margin, a genuine shocker.) Halifax County has the further need to modernize its elementary schools, and the sales tax revenue won’t cover all the expense, but it speaks to the commonsense of the electorate that people understood the high school, which is flat-out terrible, had to be remedied right away.

The outlines of comprehensive statewide solution are clear, which may be why no one wants to say what the solution is. Allow me to be of service: just as Halifax voters took it upon themselves to raise their own taxes, the State of Virginia must reform its sad joke of a tax code to generate the billions required to tackle school updates, and local governments must be yoked into the process with a requirement, or at least a strong inducement, to put their own skin in the game. (Much as we’ve seen happen in both Mecklenburg and Halifax in recent years.) None of this state revenue-raising has to claw at the pocketbooks of ordinary taxpayers, at least not in any meaningful way, since there are abundant dollars Virginia currently leaves on the table with a tax code that is laughably titled in favor of high-income households. The best example of this is Virginia’s income tax structure, which imposes a top tax rate of 5.75 percent on $17,000 in taxable income, after exemptions and deductions.

For all intents and purposes, Virginia’s income levy is a flat tax, which means people struggling to get by on five-figure salaries pay the same rate on their income as millionaires and billionaires with nary a financial care in the world. Think about it: Joe D. Schlubb who earns $17,000 in taxable wages pays the same state tax rate as Jacqueline Mars, who Google informs me is the richest person in Virginia. (She is an heir to the Mars Candy fortune, making her worth a cool $31.3 billion and elevating her to the status of richest Virginian until the day Jeff Bezos moves to the Old Dominion to lobby Congress with his New Money. His company, Amazon, is a notorious tax dodger, in case anyone wondered.)

Adding more brackets to Virginia’s income tax structure is just one way to come up with cash for school construction (to say nothing of higher pay for teachers, police and other deserving public servants.) Another idea would be to bring back the inheritance tax, so that the heirs of the Mars Candy fortune help foot the bill for public goods that benefit everyone. There’s no shortage of ways to raise revenue without imposing extra burdens on ordinary taxpayers. Halifax County voters, many of whom don’t have a lot of loose change rattling around their pockets, accepted the need to pay more to get more. Why should the wealthy be exempt from this equation?

Of course, just because answers are simple doesn’t mean they’re easy. People will do everything they can to muddy the dire need for new school infrastructure. My favorite argument, ranked by disingenuousness, is that up-to-date school facilities are irrelevant, it’s what happens inside the classroom that counts, but reams of research and one’s own lyin’ eyes put that myth to rest. Ask yourself: If modern facilities are so unimportant, why do upper-income communities spend so much money on state-of-the-art schools? Just to show off? No. Because excellent facilities go hand-in-hand with effective learning and teaching. People aren’t blind to signals. If a county or city doesn’t care enough to provide (or can’t manage to provide) modern schools for children, why should we reflexively expect that families, students, teachers and staff will rise above the lowly circumstances they’ve been handed?

Inequities are rife everywhere — in schools, in the tax code, in a world that punishes good acts and rewards bad behavior — but none of this is beyond our capacity to address, even if one must be realistic about how quickly change can happen. At heart, the Crumbling School Tours is a call to action to fix deficiencies that strike at the futures of our children. After the year we’ve just gone through, the case for action — and degree of public support — is clearer than it’s ever been. Will policy makers and politicians listen? If not, it’s their political futures, not school buildings, that should be the next things to crumble.





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