by James A. Bacon
Some public schools in Virginia, especially in inner cities and rural areas, are in disgraceful condition. Rainwater leaks into classrooms, ceiling tiles are falling, mold is growing, and rats are scurrying. We can all agree that something needs to be done. But what? How widespread are these problems? Are they so ubiquitous that the state should step in?
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, thinks so. “We have a constitutional obligation to provide high-quality education to every child, regardless of their ZIP code or financial situation in life,” he says. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond seems to agree. “We ought to be able to figure out a way to do better for our children and teachers.” So reports the Roanoke Times.
To lawmakers, finding a better way almost always translates into providing mo’ money. Schools crumbling? Give localities more money to pay for repairs, renovations and new construction. And maybe mo ‘money is what’s needed. But maybe not. Given legislators’ Pavlovian response to any problem — spend more money — citizens should insist that legislators examine the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways to deal with the phenomenon of crumbling schools.
Like what? Just to throw an idea out there, like spending less on new school construction and more on preventive maintenance.
The Virginia Department of Education publishes an annual update on the cost of new construction and renovations. In the 2019-20 school year public schools in Virginia built six new elementary schools. Costs ranged between $22.4 million for a school in Botetourt County and $42.6 million in Arlington County.
The reports provide some interesting data. One might wonder, for example, if the cost of building the Arlington County elementary school can be blamed on the high cost of land. The VDOE report indicates that the site did, in fact, cost $6.4 million in Arlington, significantly more than any other location — more than double than the $2.6 million site-acquisition cost in Botetourt. But the building cost in Arlington still exceeded that of other schools — $36.1 million compared to $23.0 million for the next most expensive building (in Virginia Beach).
We can dig a bit deeper, adjusting for total square feet per pupil. Thus, we find that Arlington County’s elementary school provides 148 square feet per pupil, compared to a low of 117 square feet at the Matoaca Elementary School in Chesterfield County. In other words, some schools are far more commodious than others.
Perhaps the most useful yardstick is the total cost per pupil of capacity Here’s the run-down for the six elementary schools and one high school:
New Elementary School-Reed Site, Arlington: $56.522
Washington and Lee High School, Westmoreland: $55,583
New Colonial Elementary, Botetourt: $41,642
Matoaca Elementary School, Chesterfield: $31,933
Reams Elementary School Replacement, Chesterfield: $332,223
Crestwood Elementary School Replacement, Chesterfield: $30,727
Thoroughgood Elementary School Replacement, Virginia Beach: $35,204
We can see that the cost of the four Chesterfield and Virginia Beach schools are clustered with in a fairly tight range. The Botetourt County school is roughly 25% higher. And the Arlington facility (even adjusted for the cost of land) is even higher. As for Westmoreland County, one might inquire as to whether the RFP called for gold-plated faucets or marble atriums. Arlington, one of the richest localities in the United States, can afford extravagance and excess. Can Botetourt and Westmoreland?
Here are other types of data that would be useful for each school district:
- Total square footage of all schools and facilities
- Total square footage per student
- Total building/facilities maintenance and operations expenditures
- Total buildings/facilities maintenance and operations per student
- Square footage and operating costs per student broken by each school
What is the variation in what schools are paying for maintenance? Are some school systems starving maintenance to pay for other programs, thus deferring costs and then crying later when they can’t pay for them? Are some schools more wildly inefficient than others? Do some schools have excessive unused space? Would it be cost-effective to consolidate schools?
As a taxpayer, I would like answers to these questions before approving another crank on the money spigot. I have seen no evidence that lawmakers in the General Assembly are even asking these questions much less answering them.There are currently no comments highlighted.