Published 11:29 am Wednesday, March 20, 2019
An issue that was front and center for many of us in rural Virginia this session was school construction. Several of us had different perspectives and experiences as to how best the state could help those counties in rural areas as well as inner cities. To better understand the issue, allow me to set the stage on how this has been dealt with in the past.
The Literary Fund was the first source of funding to assist in construction for local governments’ school needs. Originally established by then Governor Thomas Jefferson, the Literary Fund was designated to receive the penalties paid for breaking the law. Jefferson believed that if fines were paid to local governments, it would lead to abuse. Having these funds come to the state for a greater purpose would prevent that. This worked well for years, receiving more and more court fines as paved roads and more powerful cars led to driving citations in the last half of the 20th century. There was money available that the state could loan to build schools. However, in the last 30 years, counties figured out they could beat the system by passing local ordinances to match state traffic laws. Now many city and town police and county deputies write driving citations on those local ordinances, directing fines be paid to the county for local government needs.
This has left the Virginia Literary Fund with too few dollars to meet construction needs. For the last several years, the most a county could borrow was $7.5 million. This might repair some buildings, but the school system would have to borrow elsewhere for new construction. This year the Governor proposed to add $80 million General Funds’ dollars to the Fund. This amount would not be enough to build one new high school in the state; therefore, it would be of limited value.
My proposal was somewhat different. Instead of loaning small amounts to several counties, why not instead let the counties find the best sources from which to borrow. Then allow them to apply for a grant to pay part of the interest of that loan. As proposed, this would only apply to poorer school systems. The poorest systems would receive the greatest benefit. The idea was new. Some feared giving it a try. In the end, the legislation passed. However, the budget limited the amount set aside for it this first year to $5 million. I believe that as we move forward in future years it will become the norm rather than the exception; if I am around to continue the push.
Other proposals were offered by Delegate Edmunds and Senator Stanley. Delegate Edmunds’ bill would have allowed every county the option of a local referendum to add a penny to a county’s sales tax for construction. The bill was narrowed down to allow it only in Halifax. Senator Stanley had two possible solutions. One would have called for a statewide bond referendum of $4 billion for local school construction. This would have exceeded the state’s borrowing capacity; thus, it was not acceptable. His second proposal would allow a school system to build solar panels at the school to provide the power needed at the school and to sell the extra power generated to the electrical power company. This would reduce the school’s operating costs as well as pay part of the capital costs involved in the construction. This bill was successful.
Hopefully, this combination of possibilities will be of assistance as counties struggle with the needs of our schools.
Frank Ruff represents Lunenburg in the state Senate. His email address is Sen. Ruff@verizon.net.