Justin Fairfax Wants $30 Billion to Replace Old Schools

Justin Fairfax unveils profligate school spending plan at Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond.

by James A. Bacon

And so the campaign for the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor gains momentum… with a bidding war for who can spend the most money. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, one of five declared or likely Democratic candidates, has announced  plan to rebuild all public schools in Virginia that are more than 40 years old — an initiative that would cost the state $30 billion over ten years.

“Even as we rightly tear down bronze and stone monuments to the Confederacy and the racial oppression that is ingrained in that history, we also must tear down the ‘living monuments’ in our educational, economic, criminal justice, housing and health care systems that have carried that oppression from generation to generation to generation,” Fairfax said, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Traditionally, local governments in Virginia have assumed responsibility for financing the renovation and construction of schools. Some have lived up to that responsibility, and some have not. Henrico County, for example, imposed a new restaurant tax several years to fund new school construction. Fairfax’s plan for the Commonwealth to take over that obligation would reward localities that have failed to modernize their aging schools and punish those, like Henrico, that dug into taxpayer pockets to act proactively. Fairfax’s lesson to localities: shirk your responsibilities, drag your feet, and the state will bail you out.

But there’s an even more important issue at stake: Aside from a handful of school buildings that have seriously deteriorated, there is virtually zero correlation between the age of a school building and the academic achievement of the students who attend. If Fairfax wants to invest $30 billion to create better educational opportunities for young African-Americans, indiscriminately replacing school buildings more than 40 years old is just about the most extravagant, wasteful and poorly targeted idea I can imagine.

Four years ago my son graduated from Freeman High School in Henrico County. The building is 66 years old. The architectural style was ugly as hell, but, guess what, it was ugly as hell back in 1954 when it was built, too. So what? The interior has been well maintained. Apparently, the Henrico County school board allocated a sufficient sum to the maintenance of school buildings and grounds to allow Freeman to keep its roofs, windows, plumbing, ceilings, HVAC system, etc. in a state of good repair — and it has done so despite the fact that Henrico spends less per student than the neighboring City of Richmond, where the physical condition of the schools is a scandal.

Additionally, there is no mention in the RTD article that Fairfax’s plan would take into account the fact that many schools 40 years or older have undergone extensive renovations. Functionally, some of these schools are nearly as good as new. (And some have more memorable architecture.) It makes no sense whatsoever to replace them.

The single-most important factor affecting educational achievement that schools and school districts have control over is the quality of the teachers. In theory, Fairfax’s school plan would address that issue by raising average teacher pay in Virginia above the national average. A case can be made for raising teacher pay, although it is a weak one. Most teachers who leave the profession cite factors other than pay for their decision: in particular, relations with principals and administrators, and disruptions by students whom administrators cannot or will not discipline.

Another important factor affecting achievement is school discipline. On the premise that traditional methods created a school-to-prison pipeline, Virginia school systems have embraced a restorative-justice approach to maintaining order in classrooms. It may be too early to conclude decisively whether that approach is working or not, but the early signs were not encouraging when I addressed this topic a year ago.

Meanwhile, the Northam administration is doing everything its power to inculcate a social-justice consciousness in Virginia schools — an initiative enthusiastically embraced by many districts. Schools are expending significant resources to “eradicate racism,” in the words of state Superintendent of Instruction James F. Lane. “We must look at our policies, regulations, standards, resources, accountabilities, and all tools available to us to hold ourselves and our school communities accountable to ensuring that race cannot be a predictor of student success and thus, that achievement gaps are eliminated from our schools permanently.”

Lane’s unstated (and perhaps unacknowledged) premise is that African-American students have no agency. They are passive victims of racism. White-created power structures in school systems are responsible for achievement gaps, and the way to eliminate the achievement gaps is to change the power structures. It is not incumbent upon African-American students or families to change in any way. Fairfax’s $30 billion-for-new-schools initiative emerges from a similar social-justice world view.

With its commitment to “eradicating racism” by overhauling previous policies, regulations, and standards, and by dumping billions of dollars more into schools, Virginia is committing a giant social experiment. Ideally, at some point we will be able to evaluate the results: Does social justice + more money close the achievement gap, yes or no?

My analysis is that Northam is spending — and Fairfax would spend if elected — money on all the wrong things. My prediction is that the racial achievement gap will get worse, not better.

I’m not an ideologue. I’m willing to admit that I might be wrong. Unfortunately, the Northam administration seems committed to dilute the Standards of Learning exams, which, though far from perfect, do provide a yardstick for measuring academic achievement. Indeed, the exams were canceled this year because of the coronavirus, and who knows if they will be implemented next year? Without rigorous SOLs, there may be no way of ever knowing.

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45 responses to “Justin Fairfax Wants $30 Billion to Replace Old Schools

  1. It would be difficult to believe that this headline would be used to describe a white candidate’s real call for funding or pandering call for funding or anything else.

    “Mo’ Money?” Seriously? Why not change his quotes into ebonics and really send your message home.

    • I changed the headline about five minutes after I published the post — precisely to avoid the kind of deflection that you just engaged in. Try addressing the substance now.

      • Deflection? Really?

        • I’m a person who is SO LOATHE to turn everything — or even anything — quickly in to loaded elements of race. Or to comment on it.

          I truly believe there’s so much nuance being missed in our culture, in America, and a horrific dumbing down of things like historical context, and a terrible amount of ahistorical presentism marring meaningful discussions, and a tragic inability to appreciate and give homage any longer to racial and cultural and subcultural elements, and vibrant differences, without getting a smackdown, to the detriment of us all.

          Us ALL.

          But that headline was just too much. That’s why it, instead of the substance of the article, caught my attention. If even I would comment on the headline, it must be beyond the pale. And it was.

          If you want folks focused on substance, don’t make a cheap swipe at the dignity of the person being analyzed and there won’t be a problem.

          • Unfortunately Jim does do that – and I react to it also sometimes.

            He just has to get his jabs in…

            but you came here and made some intelligent comments – so please stay and comment – even if you have to hold your nose from time to time.

          • Nancy_Naive

            Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m with you on this one. I was being critical of James’ referring to your comment as a “deflection”. But then, if I had used a racially charged witticism and got called out on it…. oh wait, that was cleverly done. He used the word “deflection” as a deflection.

            Although having me agree with you around here is not a plus

    • The word “Donoschik” comes to mind

    • Jim has been using Mo’ Money to criticize white and black politicians’ requests for additional funds for about 10 years. Maybe the term overall should be retired but it was not uniquely directed at Justin Fairfax.

  2. Sounds like another way to fleece Fairfax County taxpayers. We have our own overcrowded and old schools. It’s pandering to buy votes across the state with other people’s (Northern Virginia’s) money. I’d write this irrespective of who proffered this program.

    • Looking at Fairfax County …

      Langley High School – built in 1965. Must be replaced.
      McLean High School – built in 1955. Must be replaced.
      Marshall High School – built in 1962. Must be replaced.
      Madison High School – built in 1959. Must be replaced.
      Lake Braddock Secondary School – built in 1973. Must be replaced.
      Robinson Secondary School -built 1971. Must be replaced.

      I was the first graduating class of what is now called West Potomac High School – built in 1977. Must be replaced.

      Seems like all the Fairfax County public high schools will be replaced.

      Can we get indoor pools, jai alai courts and unicorn petting zoos (as a safe space) too?

      Fairfax has no credibility.

      Also, what ever happened to #metoo and #believewomen? There are still two women out there who were involved in Democratic politics who say Justin Fairfax forcibly raped them.

  3. I thought this had merit:

    “Superintendent of Instruction James F. Lane. “We must look at our policies, regulations, standards, resources, accountabilities, and all tools available to us to hold ourselves and our school communities accountable to ensuring that race cannot be a predictor of student success and thus, that achievement gaps are eliminated from our schools permanently.”

    Is this something we disagree about and agree about?

    I don’t think new buildings are the answer but I’d be interested in hearing what instead might be.

  4. Race should not be a predictor of success or failure. But to achieve that result, wouldn’t one need to isolate all other factors except race? Does the state or a school division have the ability and commitment to do such analysis? I generally expect to see the public sector create categories that are both under- and over-inclusive at the same time.

    And then, let’s hold schools responsible for the results, starting at the top. I’m all for seeing nonperforming superintendents and administrators see compensation penalties and, if bad enough, job loss. Seeing high-paid educational personnel lose pay and jobs would increase the sector’s credibility.

    How about getting Mr. Lane to agree to answer questions about his proposal?

    • I think the point is about race – that we should be able to look at test scores of all kids – and see the same bell curve for all of them for all white and all black… in other words, there is no discernible difference between the races on test scores…

      the question is – how do we get there…

      • But one first needs to examine other variables beyond race to see whether they can explain the different scores/test results/graduation rates and the like. For example, what happens if the demographics are adjusted for household income or single parent family or truancy? I don’t know all the various factors that need to be examined but comparing black to white students to Asian students doesn’t show anything valid.

        It’s similar to a bogus statistic filed by AT&T with the FCC. They argue that an increase in the ratio of toll free calls to ordinary long distance calls is indicia of toll free fraud. What AT&T doesn’t explain is the fact that most long distance calls (sent paid) are now placed over wireless networks such that the comparison is bogus. The decline in wireline long distance calls is ignored.

        Are black children from two-parent homes making between $50-$75 K scoring the same as white children from the same demographic? Are black children from single-parent homes making under $35 K scoring the same as white children from the same demographic? With the proper adjustments, the comparisons are more likely to tell us something. And if there are big gaps that nothing else can explain, then we probably have a serious racial disparity that needs to be addressed.

        • re: ” Are black children from two-parent homes making between $50-$75 K scoring the same as white children from the same demographic? Are black children from single-parent homes making under $35 K scoring the same as white children from the same demographic? With the proper adjustments, the comparisons are more likely to tell us something. And if there are big gaps that nothing else can explain, then we probably have a serious racial disparity that needs to be addressed.”

          Public schools are not responsible for kids who live with one parent or live in a low income household?

          • TooManyTaxes

            But Larry, unless you compare kids who are otherwise the same except for their race, your comparisons are invalid. It’s like my high school biology project. I planted flower seeds in four different types of soil. Everything else (sunlight, time, water) I held constant. At the end of the month, I measured the size of the plants, the number of buds, etc. And I wrote a paper on the impact of different types of soil.

            You have to compare apples to apples to determine whether race is a factor. If you compare 20 students to a control group but 10 of the the first 20 miss at least 1/4 of the classes but none in the control group miss that many days, you won’t have a valid comparison.

          • TMT – aren’t the schools supposed to configure their work so as to successfully teach all kids no matter their circumstances?

            Can schools just say that they can’t educate some kids …..because..

            when you plant seeds – you determine what soils and other things are necessary for those plants to succeed , right?

            and you know that the next time you plant.

            Same with kids… once you know their circumstances, you know what kinds of help they need to become educated.

            If you know a kid is having trouble in an area – you help them get better in that area – that’s what folks are saying right now about getting back to working with real teachers.

            If we excuse the failure to educate kids of lower income families – how will we just not have a continuing cycle of failure – generation after generation and some folks will say it is genetic?

          • TooManyTaxes

            Larry, what evidence do you have that public schools are failing to devote resources to low-income or racial minority children? Title 1 federal funds; similar state money; and, in many cases, local money are spent educating these kids. And that’s in addition to the normal, per-student funds being spent.

            What has not been established is whether results vary solely because of race. Isolate the other factors such that the only difference between the groups of students being compared is their race. Then we can tell whether there is disparate impact.

            If there is, indeed, a disparate impact based solely on race, we need to address it. But if there are other causes and as you note, the schools may or may not be able to address the causes.

            If there are other causes and if those causes can and do cross racial lines, one gets classifications that are both under- and over-inclusive. Moreover, trying to focus on race in those instances won’t fix the problem.

          • It’s not the resources devoted. It’s are the resources devoted performing and delivering the results they intend to.

            If the poor score lower – do they have learning disabilities associated with their circumstances that are not addressed as well as they should be?

            The standard response is that kids with one parent and/or kids with under educated or poor parents don’t learn the same way but it’s essentially the kids fault for having lesser parents and living conditions.


      • Extend the time required to get an education degree from 4 to 5 years with the third year being a required, paid, full time tutoring position in a low performing school.

        Hire qualified retired people to tutor students in low performing schools without the necessity of getting a teaching degree or certification.

        You can do a lot with $30B.

  5. Spending more money (which we do not have by the way) on a failed system is ludicrous. I wonder if these bureaucrats have ANY sense of economics, taxes, and funding. Now is the time to revamp the entire education model. As always, a “one size fits all” top down “solution” is NOT the answer. We should seek to have a multifaceted system: 1) Encourage distance learning and home schooling and create the infrastructure to support it. If businesses can adopt a “work from home” model, why not the schools” 2) More community controlled Charter Schools that are geared to the needs of the students that attend them; 3) Encourage more private schools – they outperform public schools and they carry their own overhead costs. This would free up a lot of funds for the remaining schools and allow for a more efficient deployment of resources. Moreover, it would actually create more choices and create competition. I would rather see a market basket of solutions than one created by an ossified central planning focused state bureaucracy. If you look at the numbers, increased school funding has barely moved the needle.

  6. Seems like it would make more sense to evaluate these older school buildings to see what deficiencies there are and then determine the best way to correct them. There must be a commercial building equivalent of a “home inspection” that we typically get when buying a residential property–this would probably be a good place to start.

    As opposed to a blanket rule that if it’s over 40 years old it must be replaced.

  7. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Public education has been dead for some time now. Fairfax is just providing a cost estimate for the funeral.

  8. I agree with you about the absurdity of replacing every school over 40 years old. The high school from which I graduated was built in 1955. The building is now being used as a junior high school. The irony is that the county is in the process of replacing the “new” high school facility which was built much later. Obviously the construction methods in the 1950’s were better than those used later. By the way, Halifax County was one of those localities that obtained authorization from the GA to raise its sales and use tax in order to finance school construction. So, there are other jurisdictions that are willing to take on the task of school constuction.

    Without a doubt, there are many school buildings in the Commonwealth that need major maintenance, remodeling, or replacement. One overlooked tool is the Virginia Literary Fund. In years past, that was a revolving fund used to provide low-cost financing to localities for school construction. In recent years, the state has used the money in the Literary Fund to pay a portion of the state’s share of teacher retirement required by the SOQ, which decreases the amount of GF needed for this commitment. Money from the Literary Fund is also used to provide grants to localities for educational technology (computer-based tests for SOL) and security equipment. Loans for school construction are still an authorized use. However, according to the BOE website, there are no active projects. There are 11 projects on the “first priority waiting list”. Two of those projects have been on that list since July 2008. In summary, the traditional state help for localities for school construction has been preempted for other uses.

    You lost me when you morphed from Fairfax’s school construction proposal into your usual criticism of social-justice initiatives, which Fairfax’s proposals did not get into.

  9. “The high school from which I graduated was built in 1955. ”

    Mine too. It was loaded with asbestos. So was my elementary school in San Diego.

    • Mine probably was, too. As long as the asbestos was contained, it was not a health threat.

      • The theory that it is rendered benign when encased has always concerned me. When you hear of mesothelioma victims who were tangentially exposed, it’s frightening.

        Back in the early 2000s, I developed a respiratory problem. They were doing an MRI and I asked if he thought it was cancer. The radiology tech said, “No, that was ruled out with the x-ray. This is for mesothelioma. You worked in the Yard in the 70s, right?”

        That was a very long hour waiting for the results.

  10. The one I graduated from was converted to county offices and a library. A Catholic School wanted to buy it but they wanted it remodeled to modern standards for plumbing, electric, HVAC, etc. It turned out that it would cost more to remodel than to build a new one with the same square footage so that idea went away. Now the building is living on borrowed time until some major uber-expensive repair is necessary and it can no longer meet code… already grandfathered on some stuff..

    Yes, you can remodel SOME older buildings but others become more expensive to fix than to build new.

  11. Allow me to present Matthew Whaley Elementary School in Williamsburg. Built in 1930 in Georgian Revival design complete with glazed flemish bond when Colonial Williamsburg needed the original school site next door to rebuild the Palace, it was the Williamsburg school until a new high school opened in 1955 and Matthew Whaley became the elementary school. In 1998 the school underwent a renovation to make it ADA compliant and redo the slate roof. It is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Newcomers to Williamsburg specifically ask for this school when they start home searches in the area. The pre-integration Black school, Bruton Heights, also a grand brick structure, was built in 1940 and closed in the 80s, and today houses the Colonial Williamsburg highest offices, library, and research and education center. The younger James Blair school? Not so well built, and so replaced from scratch a few years ago.

    My point? Just because the City of Richmond has refused to maintain its architecturally magnificent yet structurally hazardous older schools does not mean they are worthy of the wrecking ball, and building age itself does not affect academic achievement. Mr. Fairfax is tossing out excuses when he needs to be minding academic accountability.

    I’ll add these photos to brighten your evening. https://bit.ly/37G9tVP https://bit.ly/3hEMK0J

    • Not all building are created “equal”. One of the main differentiators is what kind of roof. Buildings with steep pitched roofs or metal roofs will withstand weather far longer and the roofs can be recovered when needed although a metal or slate roof can last for a hundred years.

      But flat roofs that have tar and rubber membranes on them – almost always start to leak – sometimes early on and while that can be repaired – not cheaply and worse – water gets into the building – into walls and spaces where it stays and builds mold – which then can get into the HVAC system.

      In these schools, you can almost invariably know – the moment you enter the school – it will have a musty smell. Even though you may not see moisture or mold – that mustiness is a giveaway.

      Some schools actually, over time, get classified as “sick” schools because of the higher than normal incidence of colds and sickness of staff and students.

      here’s an example of a modern school with the proper roof:


      the problem is that metal-roofed schools are more expensive than flat-roofed schools..

      • I remember seeing one tar/rubber (it’s usually EPDM) roof where someone had changed out a compressor in an AC unit and spilled compressor oil on the roof. And then didn’t bother to clean it up.

        Oil deteriorates EPDM.

        As far as metal roofs, I know of another case where rooftop AC units were installed, and the condensate was allowed to drain directly onto the metal roof instead of being piped over to the gutters. The manufacturer of the metal roof specifically states in their documentation that condensate not be allowed to drip on the roof because it can cause corrosion.

        • In all cases – the work has to be done – right…

          but correctly installed metal roofs last a long, long time, often longer than the rest of the building.

          But a roof that leaks – destroys stuff underneath.

  12. “Mo money” is a riff off Spike Lee’s 1990 move “Mo Better Blues.” The use of the headline mocks African Americans and should not be used. This is not the first instance of racially-tinged presentations by the author. Some years ago he had space aliens dressed up in sombreros holding tacos. It read”I cone in peace.” Jim, you really need to stop this.

  13. The construction cost of many schools is driven up when architects try to use the school to win design awards.

    A public school should be designed to be as simple to construct as is practical for the site upon which it is to be located, with interior spaces designed to be comfortable and conducive to learning, but logically and efficiently laid out.

    There is no justifiable reason to complicate the design of a school building beyond rectangular shapes with minimal changes in roof-lines. Fancy architectural features drive up construction costs and complicate future maintenance and repairs (further driving up costs). This is fine on privately funded buildings but is a monumental waste of taxpayer money when applied to the design schools.

  14. That is pretty much what I have in mind for school designs.

    Standardized designs for the three basic types of public school (elementary, middle, and high) would be developed, with several size variants to accommodate specific capacity needs. Choices for several different exterior finishes and roofing material would be available, along with options regarding the location of such “big box” items as the cafeteria, gymnasium, and auditorium relative to the main structure. This would prevent all of our schools from looking exactly alike. Each basic school plan would be available in a “mirror-image” configuration to allow the best fit for a given site.

    I would envision the state education department being the clearinghouse for plans, maintaining term contract(s) with architecture and MEP engineering firms to perform periodic updates to the “standard” plans to address changes in building codes, and making plans available to local school districts for a nominal fee (to cover ongoing costs of maintaining the designs).

    Such an arrangement could save hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in design costs and potentially millions in construction costs on each new school. Of course, there are a couple of well-know architecture firms that would fight such a proposal tooth and nail.

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