Bill Stanley’s $4 Billion School Modernization Crusade

School officials show Sen. Bill Stanley a piece of electrical conduit removed from Christiansburg Elementary School during recent repairs. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, wants to know if the deteriorating physical condition of many Virginia schools violates the U.S. Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against “separate but equal” schools for whites and blacks, reports the Roanoke Times.

It’s not remotely clear from the article what that landmark ruling might have to to with the situation in Virginia today other than the superficial parallel between physically deteriorated inner-city schools and better-maintained structures in suburban counties. But Stanley is determined to do something about the physical condition of Virginia’s schools, and he has been stumping the state to raise $3 billion to $4 billion for modernization.

“This isn’t merely an infrastructure issue: it’s a moral issue too,” Stanley wrote in a letter Thursday asking Attorney General Mark Herring to look into the constitutional issues arising from Virginia’s deplorable schools.

The family’s role in education may be paramount, and he can’t fix that, he said. But repairing the physical condition of Virginia’s schools, he told the Roanoke Times, is something that government can fix.

Nearly half of the state’s schools are close to 50 years old, and some are even old enough to be considered historic buildings under federal and state law.

In rural and urban schools, there are trash cans positioned to collect water from leaky ceilings, tiles falling from the ceiling, children burned on exposed pipes, rats scampering through hallways.

In Floyd and Pulaski counties, students have been dismissed early multiple times since the school year started because they don’t have air conditioning.

Stanley would solve the problem by dedicating the anticipated $250 million to $300 million windfall revenue stream from the sales tax on Internet to paying off some $3 billion to $4 billion in bonds issued to pay for the modernization program.

Bacon’s bottom line: Before I start my critique of Stanley’s atrocious proposal, let me first affirm that the condition of certain schools is an embarrassment to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Children should never be forced to use squalid rest rooms, be exposed to falling ceiling tiles, or burn themselves on exposed pipes. These are Third World conditions that have no place in Virginia.

The issue isn’t whether we should address these problems — I dare say that there is near unanimity that the conditions are disgraceful — but how we address them. First, do schools really need $3 billion to $4 billion to deal with the problem? Second, should the state take on responsibility for a local responsibility. And third, are old schools really what’s holding Virginia school children back?

Is this a $3-$4 billion problem? First, I’d like to know how Stanley came up with a price tag of $3-$4 billion. A previous Roanoke Times article attributed that number to a “a school facility modernization subcommittee ” formed this spring. I can find references online to the subcommittee agenda but none pointing to any reports or studies. I suspect that the figure encompasses a much more expansive program than simply fixing exposed pipes, rehabbing bathrooms, getting rid of rats, and installing air conditioning.

If that’s true, fixing scandalous conditions highlighted in hearings and news articles account for only a fraction of total expenditures under the proposal. Perhaps my suspicions are wrong — it wouldn’t be the first time. But if Virginians are to support the issuance of billions of dollars in bonds, they need total transparency on what the money would be used for.

Rewarding the profligate and punishing the responsible. The maintenance of school facilities is a local responsibility. Some local governments have done a good job of maintaining facilities and modernizing schools, and some have done a lousy job. For instance, in 2016 Henrico County voters approved the issue of $276 million in school bonds, more than $10 million of which was to be devoted to the repair and modernization of old school buildings. Now Stanley proposes having the state take over that responsibility for cities and counties that have been less diligent with their finances.

If the state intervenes in the way Stanley proposes, why would any locality issue school modernization bonds ever again? The City of Richmond spends significantly more money per student than Henrico County, yet the city’s schools are among the most deplorable in the state because the city has failed to allocate proper sums for routine maintenance. If school buildings now require major capital outlays, why can’t Richmond issue its own bonds? Oh, yeah, that’s because it’s tapped out its bonding capacity on other projects (some of dubious value) and any additional debt would make it difficult to maintain its AA bond rating.

What difference does it make? While all schools should be required to maintain basic standards of habitability, is there any evidence that new schools make a difference in academic achievement? Writes the Roanoke Times:

Stanley cites the research of Carol Cash, an educational leadership professor at Virginia Tech, who gave the subcommittee a presentation last month on how children can learn more effectively and succeed with improved building conditions, such as minimizing background noise, controlling heat and air conditioning, and having spacious classrooms. She said research shows that deficient schools conditions contribute to poor academic performance.

If she’s saying that it hurts academic performance when students sitting in a classroom have roof tiles fall on their heads, well, I’d have to agree with her. But does her research provide justification for $3-$4 billion in outlays? Let’s just say I’d like to see that research.

Here’s what I’d also like to see, and it shouldn’t be especially hard for researchers to get the data. Richmond Public Schools has built four new schools in the last two to five years. What were the SOL trends lines for students at the old, dilapidated schools, and what were the SOL scores for students in the new schools? Did the trend trajectories change? How do the trends compare for students at older schools? Did the newness of the schools make a discernible difference between the two groups?

Before we run off and spend $3-$4 billion on a state bond issue relieving local government of their responsibilities, let’s see (1) a breakdown of how the money would be spent and (2) evidence that the money (beyond repairs affecting health and safety) would improve student performance.

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16 responses to “Bill Stanley’s $4 Billion School Modernization Crusade”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Yeah .. it DOES sound like a Dem idea and yes.. I’d like to see a comprehensive report for Virginia schools .. I know up our way in exurban Washington/NoVa the schools are fairly well maintained – and the older ones have been renovated and additions built on them rather than building only brand new schools… but I have no clue how much our schools cost on a per student basis… I know that new ones can cost 30 million or more for an Elementary and we have spend 100 million for high schools.

    In terms of the proposed money … if you spread the 4 billion over about 2000 schools ( 2,182 schools in 227 school districts.)… I think you end up with about 2 million per school… or if you pick a number like 30 million for a school, you could 133 new ones for that kind of money or one new one per each school district.

    I’m thinking that the money is in the ballpark … it’s a lot… but we have a lot of schools…

    In terms of local responsibility, I tend to agree – but also point out that the State does recognize local “ability to pay” – codified with the Local Composite Index so if the state configured capital facility support similar to the way it does operating expenses… maybe means tested in a similar way and basic standards so that no one is tempted to build a Taj Mahal.

    The other thing to point out is that in many localities – the schools become disaster shelters… and need to have things like backup generators and spaces and facilities for large numbers of people.

    Perhaps there are other grants available for disaster preparedness that could be combined with new school grants to provide to the community not only a new/better school but a disaster relief facility.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    So Virginia has this thing called the Literary Fund. When you pay a speeding ticket in Virginia, you are “making a contribution to the literary fund.” One of its main purposes is to provide funding for school construction but apparently it doesn’t do much of that. It can also be used for other things (teacher retirement for one) and flows in those other directions. Exploring a bit more deeply what is — and is not — going on with the current literary fund would be the first step in my book. And I am the first to admit this one is outside my wheelhouse. So I will shut up and do some research.

    Should Virginia reap additional sales tax from out of state vendors (actually paid by Virginia buyers) as I’ve already pointed out the money would be earmarked by existing law to localities for education, to transportation, with less than half not specifically designated already. The GA would have to pry the dollars out of some other eager government entity’s hands to divert it to this purpose. Good luck with that.

    If a federal court rules that Virginia’s school funding system or decrepit facilities violate constitutional principles or previous Supreme Court rulings, the bulk of the remedy bill will be paid by local property tax increases – not tacking a sales tax onto your Wayfair purchase. And a federal court if asked will probably do exactly that. Herring knows it well. Let’s see what he does. There may be a bit of “I’m running for AG” behind some of this….

  3. The idea is to take the monies generated by Wayfair, dedicate them to purchase general obligation bonds, and then to invest the proceeds in a K-12 capital construction program. The Subcommittee is working on the specific parameters of how any grants would be allocated, what local match would be required, and what types of projects would be prioritized within localities.

    However, the idea that NOVA schools are well-maintained is not accurate. Fairfax County has a $2 billion construction/maintenance backlog. Prince William County has 210 trailers and is about 1-2 high schools short right now.

    Most schools in the state are not properly built for broadband or using technology to educate children.

    As for the racial disparities, one elementary school in my district – is 90% FRM, about 2% white and has 27 trailers alone. In Prince William County, one school board member has given me data showing that 80-90% of the trailers are in the Eastern part of the County which is 60-70% minority while the less diverse parts of the County do not have school overcrowding/maintenance issues.

    There are many recent studies showing that America is starting to re-segregate housing and schools (due to boundaries) and often those communities are less effective advocating for resources.

    Given our current President’s behavior and the dogs that have responded to his whistles, Chief Justice Roberts’ view that racism is not a factor in America today is preposterous and these are issues we at least need to discuss and I suspect that his opinion request was designed, in-part, to facilitate that discussion.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Senator, your points are generally well taken (other than a spurious and useless reference to President Trump). You and I both came up through the Fairfax County Public School System. In fact, in 1977 I graduated from a gleaming new school complex at what was then called Groveton High School. Groveton historically had a much higher than average percentage of minority students (vs Fairfax County average) and significant pockets of poverty in its area. Yet there we were, picking up our diplomas from the finest high school facility in Fairfax County at that time. If poor facilities are matter of race how in God’s name did Groveton end up with such fine facilities? Meanwhile, much whiter and much richer Jefferson High School (before it became a Tech magnet school) was a pit.

      As you know, I am very familiar with the elementary schools in your district including (I think) the one you mention in your comment. It is far from obvious to me that the poorest areas of Fairfax County have the worst facilities. In fact, the less affluent areas (often with highest minority populations) have the lowest student to teacher ratios in what seems to be a conscious effort to focus on less affluent students. Langley High School, for example, is probably the wealthiest high school in Fairfax County. It was built in 1965 or 53 years ago. My son graduated from Langley and it certainly didn’t seem to be a Taj Mahal of a facility.

      Fairfax County has plenty of problems. I don’t think equity among schools is one of them however.

      1. Thanks for the comment Don. I think you’re right historically, but more recently things have fallen out of balance. If Hybla Valley ES and it’s 27 trailers existed anywhere north of U.S. 50 in Fairfax County, it would have been fixed years ago.

        It’s complicated…. Generally speaking, it’s my understanding that FCPS runs their building renovation schedule on a 37.5 year cycle (might off by a year or two) which I’m told is less than ideal – buildings typically require faster renovation than that (again, I’m not building expert). According to the most recent CIP (, FCPS has a $300M *three year* capital backlog due to the Board of Supervisors refusal to allocate more bonding capacity to schools versus other opportunities – over 20 years, that stretches into the billions.

        Groveton/Fort Hunt HS, were built out (mid-1960’s) during a rapid growth phase in Fairfax County when they had lots of new money coming in and a raging economy.

        Today, they are not flush with cash, but operating on limited resources and having to prioritize their money. About 5-6 years ago, Thomas Jefferson HSST got over $50M of **private** capital invested into that school in addition to a full renovation – I’m not aware of a single H.S. in Eastern Fairfax County receiving a penny of private capital (except one program for some computers I think you’re aware of!). TJHSST is 2% FRM.

        While the ratios are lower in Title I schools – as required by federal law – TJHSST – the school with the lowest FRM % in the county and some of the highest achieving kids – bizarrely also has lower ratios than traditional high schools.

        Fairfax County refuses to implement a subsidized preschool program – which would benefit thousands of children in low income areas – ostensibly because they would have to build new facilities/classrooms, (and because they don’t like the state match).

        There was not a single National Merit Semifinalist East of I-95 last year. The lack of these is not just demographic – it’s also programmatic and due to how FCPS allocates its advanced academic resources.

        FCPS’ continued insistence to charge students for taking online classes – even FRM students and their 10 year old BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) computer policies evidence a lack of responsiveness to poverty and minority populations. FWIW, they are currently implementing a one-to-one computer program under the new Superintendent.

        FCPS’ fee policies are extremely inequitable. For example, it’s policy allowing schools to charge for parking has massive disparate consequences.

        I believe they also now make kids pay their own AP test fees.

        I find that the FCPS Board/Administration is responsive to those who complain the loudest and that often means those with means and does not mean those who are too busy struggling to survive or new to our area and don’t understand how to get their government to do anything. Attentive elected officials and school officials would take this into account and balance things out in making their decisions.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          “There was not a single National Merit Semifinalist East of I-95 last year. The lack of these is not just demographic – it’s also programmatic and due to how FCPS allocates its advanced academic resources.”

          I do not believe the cause for “not a a single National Merit Semifinalist East of I-95 last year” is “demographic … programmatic and due to how FCPS allocates its advanced academic resources.”

          This is factually not true.

          The problem is a systemic corruption with how those school are run, and who runs those schools, and the corrupted culture within which those schools must operate.

          For example, DC has the highest per capital school expenditures in the nation, and long has beeb among the worst schools for academic achievement.


          Up until the mid 1950’s, DC had the best all black high school in the United States, outperforming most white schools in the nation, and that very large non selective high school enrolled over a third of all black students in DC, the great majority of them from poor families with poorly educated parents.

          Then, starting in the mid 1950, our culture in DC and elsewhere collapsed, while our government started pouring monies and non teaching remedies into schools. Little has changed since, but for the worse in our public school systems that wastes vast sums of money annually while failing to educate ever greater majorities of our kids. It not a lack of funds. It’s not demographics. Its a systemic failure of our leaders in education to do their job. Your proposal is bound to fail.

        2. djrippert Avatar

          You and I both know the issues with FCPS. We’ve both put time and money into trying to help that situation a bit. I just don’t see a correlation between the condition of school facilities with either poverty or race. Fairfax County’s 37.5 year standard is a bit ridiculous but I’ve been to many FCPS schools as my sons played sports all around the county and I’ve seen plenty of school that look like they’re falling apart in affluent areas. While it may have been fixed by now McLean High School looked like a disaster when my boys were playing sports – sometime using McLean High School facilities.

          I also think you have to exclude Jefferson from any analysis. It’s a specialty school requiring an entrance exam, etc. As you know, there are very few poor students at TJ but a lot of minority students since Asian-Americans make up a large segment of the student population. If Fairfax County overspends on TJ it’s not because they are anti-Mt Vernon or West Potomac. It’s just stoking their ego of having one of the best public high schools in the country.

          Hybla Valley is instructive. Too many commentators on this board think that money grows on trees in NoVa and every child is the son or daughter of a defense company VP. In reality, there are a lot of very poor areas in NoVa especially if you factor in cost of living. Hybla Valley Elementary School is a perfect example. They need help at HVES and there are quite a few people who grew up in that area (and even attended that school) who have gone on to be successful doctors, lawyers and businessmen (even some state senators). I don’t see why a community outreach program should be out of the question for needy public schools. It happens in places like Talbot County, MD why not in Fairfax? However, absent the effort you, Paul Krizek and I made I’m not sure this is happening. Do you feel that the initiative we worked on was successful?

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I have done a quick consult and my opinion was confirmed (and I suspect esquires Surovell and Stanley and Goldman agree) – Virginia might be in a weak position should such a case be brought. Such funding equity suits have been brought all around the country, lots of precedent. But it will go way beyond buildings and attack the funding formula, and the remedy that will be ordered will blow quickly past the collections of remote sales tax – and will impact local real estate taxes as well. This lights quite a fuse…..

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I agree with Jim’s post. And the follow on comments above.

    Passing this bill would be a terrible mistake. It would waste large sums of money and fix a relatively small part of what is wrong with our elementary, middle schools, and high schools today.

    In fact it would undermine those schools as Jim suggests.

    The problem here with these schools is not their bricks or mortar, or their school equipment. It lies within our culture.

    Until we fix our culture, our schools, ever more of them, no matter whether they be black, white, brown, or whatever combination thereof, will increasingly fail. This is not a prediction. It is an obvious and provable fact. And its been going on since the 1960s, and its there right in front of our noses for all of us to see.

    And we know how to fix these real problems, indeed we have fixed again and again this country, but far to few of us are willing to fix them in the rest of our schools that are grievously failing kids.

    We thus are willing participants in the downward spiral that been going on now for the last 6 decades. The facts backing this up have been well documented. We just refuse to admit them.

    I will get into this more soon. And I hope CRANKY will chime in.

    Meanwhile I’m copy in Sara Carter’s recent and important post here on Bacon’s Rebellion, an important part of the puzzle.

    Sara Carter said:

    Sara E. Carter | September 5, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Reply

    “There is rich and deep research that shows home environment is THE most important thing- from less screen time to how many words are spoken in a home to how much reading occurs by adults. However, that being said, school systems need to educate the children they have. It seems to me that the focus of some of this discussion should be on districts that have challenges, and yet, still achieve great results. I live in Appomattox County, where the free and reduced lunch rate hovers right around 50%, and per pupil expenditures are around $9100 per student, which is very low comparatively. Yet, they have been fully accredited for three years in a row. They are not the only school system in the state that is consistently beating the odds. How are the districts that are succeeding through the challenges managing these results? What are the similarities between districts that are beating the odds? Can Cranky or someone who has the gift of these wonderful cross-tabulations determine who the superstars are? For me, the cross tab should include a comparison of SOL pass rates to free and reduced lunch, but I also find the per pupil expenditure interesting, as doing more with less is always a bonus.” END QUOTE


    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Scott the Senator –

      Let me introduce you to Sara Carter. (See above)

      Sara seems to be fixing the academic problems in Appomattox County like yours in Northern Virginia. But she’s succeeding at fixing her kid’s learning problems at the per student cost of $9100 annually.

      So, to be diligent and prudent, before you try to solve your kids learning problems by spending $3 to $4 Billion dollars in taxpayer money, why don’t you travel down Appomattox and consult with Sara? Imagine what you might learn about how to save a couple of $Billion in taxpayer money from Sara.

      I am quite serious. Wouldn’t be a dereliction of your duty as a state Senator who’s responsible for the education of Virginia’s students, and also for the prudent expenditure of Virginia’s taxpayer money, for you to fail to take that short road trip?

      After all, its just down a hop down the road from Richmond. Cost you a couple bucks in gas. Why not give it a try?

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    School officials really don’t give a damn about the condition of school buildings. If they did, they would use money differently. Several years ago, Longfellow Middle School in McLean/Falls Church had no hot water in the boys’ restrooms. I can only presume the same held true for the girls restrooms.

    Yet Fairfax County maintains two separate pension plans for school employees – the standard VRS plan plus a plan that encourages teachers to leave the system early (retirement) because it pays them the equivalent of Social Security payments. But this pension plan does not stop when the retiree is 62 and eligible for Social Security or even at 66/67 when the retiree is eligible for full Social Security, Believe it or not, the supplemental pension plan (which of course is underfunded) pays the equivalent of Social Security benefits (with cost of living adjustments) until the retiree dies. So the school retiree gets VRS, plus in lieu of Social Security, plus Social Security.

    If anyone in Fairfax County government truly cared about the condition of schools, they would have ended the ridiculously expensive supplemental pension plan for all but those people collecting it or who were vested at a bare minimum.

    Senator Surovell – why don’t you push for Senate hearings that investigate Fairfax County’s outrageous use of taxpayer dollars to buy union votes instead of fixing our schools? Further, neither the School Board nor the BoS will follow adopted county policy by updating school proffer targets annually and also refuse to look the proffer formulas used by other nearby jurisdictions. Our local officials would rather keep developer campaign contributions coming than end the use of trailers. Or will you walk away because most of these officials belong to your political party? One of my favorite books of all time is Profiles in Courage. Please do the right thing and cross your political party for the benefit of students, teachers and taxpayers. Thank you. TMT

    1. I wish we had more hearings like that, but we generally don’t do oversight hearings due to staff limitations and because most of us are part-time.

      I’ve heard others express concern about the pension, but it does help to make up for the fact that FCPS salaries are no longer remotely competitive with Arlington, Montgomery or PG Counties.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Senator – you are, indeed, correct, FCPS teacher salaries are not as competitive as needed to attract and retain high-quality, motivated teachers. The biggest gap, as I understand it, is at the mid-career level.

        Yet, if one looks at total compensation, including the second pension plan, FCPS jumps much higher in comparisons. This becomes even more problematic when younger teachers complain that they would rather have more money now than the second pension plan when asked to choose between the two. Fairfax County’s pension plans (not addressing VRS) are seriously underfunded. Of course, the strong stock market has helped reduce the funding gap.

        But the go-go days for Fairfax County’s economy have disappeared and many fear that they may not return for a long time. Every measure shows that job growth is highly skewed towards lower-paying service jobs. And many higher-income retirees are leaving the County for less expensive cost of living and less traffic congestion.

        All is not woe but responsible government would take action on pensions. To its credit, I believe the School Board moved to the Rule of 90 and now considers the top five years instead of the top three for calculating pensions.

        But most businesses have moved to 401K plans, with many providing very good employer matches and excellent fund management services. The federal government moved to FERS, a hybrid plan, decades ago. My wife’s returns under FERS more often than not beat mine in the private sector. The GA reformed VRS into a hybrid plan a few years ago.

        And it’s very clear that public sector pension plans can go bankrupt with retirees often taking a substantial “haircut.” That is the worst of all possible worlds. And while Fairfax County has nipped around the edges, it still has not stepped up to the plate and made the hard decisions that will control pension costs and protecting its ability to operate and provide services many desire. Indeed, the Chair of the BoS’s Pension Committee, Supervisor Gross, has not even scheduled a meeting on pensions. Fiddling while Fairfax burns.

        I think it’s well past time for the General Assembly to hold hearings on local government pensions. The residents of this state need sunshine on pensions and their funding problems.

      2. djrippert Avatar

        How does Arlington do it? They spend $19,340 per student while Fairfax spends $14,767. The high schools in Arlington County really are Taj Mahals. If Arlington spent at the Fairfax County level it would save $117m per year. That’s just under $500 for every man, woman and child living in Arlington. And that’s just to get down to the FAirfax County level of spending.

        Do you think Arlington is getting it’s money worth or should every family of 5 get a $2,500 rebate check instead?

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Fairfax County Public Schools offer gold plated Special Education services that greatly exceed not only the legal requirements but also the level of services offered anywhere else in the region. This is most especially true for Level 2 services – the most expensive. As a result, people with children with the greatest needs move here from around the U.S. and sometimes from other nations. Military families are often granted transfers here so as to enable them to get access to free services not available at other postings. Ditto for corporate transfers both U.S. and multinational companies.

          As a result, budgets for the kids in the middle, be they male or female, black, brown or white, native born or immigrant, are continually stretched. Class sizes are inflated and ordinary maintenance on schools is postponed. Toss in our clearly excessive pensions and we have a good explanation for many of the differences between Fairfax County Public Schools and those of its neighbors.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Excellent discussion going on here.

            And now some ill advised members of Va. General Assembly want to spend another $3 or $$ billion of state wide sales tax revenues on school infrastructure and maintenance, while the real problems in our schools are totally ignored and remain unaddressed.

            The real problems in our schools are cultural. Such as our failure to enforce discipline in the classroom along with proven direct teaching protocols that insure that our children learn the good habits and real skills they need to survive and thrive in the real world.

            Not all educational problems require money.

            DC now spends roughly $30,000 per student annually and DC still remains among the worst and least effective public schools systems in the nation. Spending more and more every year of other people’s money is the easy and corrupt way out for politicians.

            What very few politicians have the courage to do is address real problems in real and effective ways. It will make them unpopular with special interests who give them votes in return for special favors.

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