Answer Basic Questions, Please, Before Demanding Mo’ Money

The Heights, a $100 million school in Arlington County, co-locates a “democratic alternative magnet” program and a program for students with severe intellectual disabilities, according to School Construction News. It comes equipped with a lobby/gathering space, a theater, a gymnasium, rooftop terraces, and smart panel screens. Wildly extravagant, yes. But, in all fairness, no one else in Virginia is building schools like this.

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.

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8 responses to “Answer Basic Questions, Please, Before Demanding Mo’ Money

  1. The best work in the classroom I ever did was at the Fredericksburg Regional Alternative School. I helped 72 seniors get their last credit for graduation. Most of these kids had been expelled for dope, booze, and fighting. The building was the old Walker Grant High School built in 1938. This old relic from the days of segregation was a gem. Art deco architecture, slate chalk boards, old fashioned desks that could withstand decades of abuse, creaking old radiator pipes, and a nest of Lady Bugs that would fly around by the thousands in the winter. That was a great school. Just about every kid made it out. I never had trouble. Instead of calling parents, I called probation officers. Worked like a charm. I did this all for $6.30 an hour. Recession of 1993 that was all that was out there.

    My point is simple. It is not the fancy buildings that make a great classroom. It is the will to make every minute of the school day count and really mean it to.

  2. The basic question that needs to be asked is … does the school district have the property value to pay for their schools?

    I brought up the VA state school finance stuff last week. It is much more complicated than it needs to be. KISS Virginians

  3. When courthouses get as decrepit as some of these school buildings, the judges swing their big bats and make local officials fix it, or be found in contempt. With schools, the politicians have every incentive to dither and delay and spend the dollars on other priorities. So step one, vote the idiots out. Whether and how the state should help pay to build local schools is a big question, but if it didn’t make it into THIS budget, with $23 billion in new spending, clearly nobody fears voter backlash.

  4. I was under the impression that the State did not pay for school buildings.

    Also – 30 million for an elementary is fairly common and 100 million was spent on a high school.

    Now I happen to think that at the local level, if voters want a fancy school, then they are willing to pay – what’s the problem?

    You can build a school like a prison for cheap or you can build a school that is a welcoming place for students and parents for more depending on what local voters want (or not).

    As far as I can tell in the Fredericksburg Area, parents are fine with “nice” schools that cost more than basic institutional architecture.

    I just don’t see the problem. In poorer, rural counties I’m sure the sentiment might be different but you want a school that kids like and want to be and really, it’s a small cost compared to the labor costs for teachers and other personnel.

  5. Larry, here is a longer explanation for my earlier comment …

    This ‘radical Leftist’ has just spent time listening to Steve Forbes on C Span. Here’s the thing … I actually agree with his take on problems that need fixing and on the fact that tinkering around the edges is not going to fix anything during this time of major change. As I think about the GA issues this year with the new Democratic majority, and as I look back at where Virginia has been, this Damn Yankee thinks it’s time for the GA to think hard about ‘process’, about their ‘sorta part-time’ GA and about how laws get shaped and enacted in Virginia.

    One state budget item complicated in Virginia is Education. We hear stories the terrible condition of some of Virginia’s public schools, but there doesn’t appear to be a discussion about how to fund our public education or the buildings needed fairly. Public schools are funded largely by local property taxes. The ability to fund each local system depends in part on the size of each community’s property valuations. A fair and simple formula might equalize a local system’s ability to raise taxes, fairly allocating state funds for education and assuring all Virginia students should have a shot at a good education in a decent building. The state can pitch in simply to level all the school systems’ ability to fund their kids education. The state’s role should also include setting and verifying standards.

    I did not hear Mr. Forbes’s whole speech, but we agree that the tax system is totally out of whack, that our medical/insurance system does not serve the customer because the third party is in charge. The ‘third party’ makes complicated rules and so treatment decisions don’t include cost. Mr. Forbes also talked about problems with a higher education system that leaves college graduates with a ‘mortgage’ and the inability to use that time of their life to learn and explore, by for instance, going to teach English in China for 2 years, because they have to pay that ‘mortgage.’

    So, here is one suggestion … Let’s talk about things that our ‘community’ needs to provide, like education, healthcare, interacting as part of the international community, and the tax system. Forbes had simple tax solutions that would totally toss the federal tax code which is much too complex. His plan would not tax the first $52,000 of income and then add a flat tax on the rest, combined with a VAT tax on purchases. Interesting and simple. Let’s investigate ways that the issues, once generally defined, are met by other governments, and let’s evaluate solutions. Most importantly let’s “Keep It Simple Stupid!”

    And here is the other suggestion … understand that maybe the way the GA and our elected officials are paid isn’t doing the job.
    Section 6 of Article IV states that the General Assembly is to convene annually on the second Wednesday in January. In even-numbered years, regular sessions are limited to sixty days. In odd-numbered years, regular sessions are limited to thirty days. Section 6 allows the General Assembly to extend its regular sessions by thirty days if two-thirds of each house vote to extend the session. Is this long enough to actually do the job. Is the pay enough to secure good people who don’t have to bow to their funders?

    We all know that Dominion has had an outside influence on our electricity system and that their influence has worked in favor of a 19th century business model for utilities. Can’t blame them for wanting to make the best profit, but we are in the midst of a technology change that Dominion has used their political power to dramatically slow down and even to skew the process with ‘trickery’.

    In a recent column at Power for the People Ivy Main wrote that Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) defines ‘total electric energy’ as “total electric energy minus electricity produced by nuclear power. Since nuclear provides about 30% of Virginia’s electric generation, that means the RPS percentages look bigger than they really are. ” A 15% RPS, electricity produced by renewables, by 2025 is actually only 10%. How does this slide by in our GA?

    I don’t know but maybe Virginia likes to keep ‘stuff’ complicated and therefore mostly indecipherable?

    • Isn’t this exactly what the state is doing ….. ?

      “One state budget item complicated in Virginia is Education. We hear stories the terrible condition of some of Virginia’s public schools, but there doesn’t appear to be a discussion about how to fund our public education or the buildings needed fairly. Public schools are funded largely by local property taxes. The ability to fund each local system depends in part on the size of each community’s property valuations. A fair and simple formula might equalize a local system’s ability to raise taxes, fairly allocating state funds for education and assuring all Virginia students should have a shot at a good education in a decent building. The state can pitch in simply to level all the school systems’ ability to fund their kids education. The state’s role should also include setting and verifying standards.”

  6. Not really … and if you can figure out how much support the various districts receive from the state I say … do let us know. The primary source of revenue for the schools is local. The state applies a formula to give additional support. Each district must meet their required effort for the SOQ.

    There is a formula that “uses three indicators to estimate ‘ability to pay’ for each locality: the true value of real property in the locality = 50%, VA adjusted gross income in the locality = 40%, and taxable retail sales in the locality weighted at 10%. Then there are a lot of additional requirements that if met will secure more state funds, like funding for school buses which depends on the state’s judgment of age. To cut the state budget school bus ‘life’ was changed from 12-15 years.

    Researchers at the Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based think tank in 2016, said that Virginia schools were being shortchanged $800 million a year because of formulas that under estimate what it actually costs to educate children. Adjustments to the formula during the recession had the effect of cutting state education funding for the long haul. “These were not one-time cuts that they made to the appropriation level,” said Michael Cassidy, co-author of the report. “Rather, they went in and structurally changed the education funding formulas.”

    The effect fell the most heavily on poor districts. Lee County, among the poorest, lost $1,200 per pupil, the most in the state and equal to 10% of their student expense.

    So , no Virginia has complicated the issue of equalizing the ability of each school district’s ability to raise enough money to adequately fund their schools.

  7. The picture accompanying this post was, I think, intended to display kids at play but also profligate spending; it’s carefully taken from an angle that minimizes the urban background. Let’s remember where this is: at the NE corner of Wilson Boulevard and Quinn Street, just east of the Courthouse and on the west edge of the Rosslyn neighborhood, surrounded by a commercial district, with high rises in all directions. This is an extreme, tight urban location, not a neighborhood school. In many jurisdictions it would have been sold off for yet another office building and the money used to build a low-rise school nearer to the homes served. But Arlington has no more space for low rise schools anywhere; and, anyway, this school will serve a county-wide gifted-student program that has no neighborhood affiliation. The school building and grounds it vacated is also undergoing higher-density renovation. I think if you knew the facts, you (like the Arlington School Board) would be hard pressed to find a cheaper “conventional” solution.

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