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Pending education bill would create local option for financing new public schools

Jeremy McPike stands to give his remarks on the Virginia Senate floor
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
State Sen. Jeremy McPike, D–Prince William, remarks from the Senate floor on March 5, 2024 at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

The General Assembly has granted nine localities the necessary power on a case-by-case basis.

Legislation granting all localities the ability to ask voters if they’d agree to a 1% sales tax hike to fund new public schools if needed has cleared the General Assembly, following a years-long fight to get it passed. It’s now awaiting approval from Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, localities currently have to seek individual permission from lawmakers before taking the issue to voters. State Sen. Jeremy McPike (D–Prince William) said issues like this are referred to as Christmas tree bills, because each locality’s request is like adding another branch to the same tree.

“It starts with one idea in one locality, and they gain authority. And then the next year, we see another one approach like, ‘Hey, we kind of want that too,’” said McPike. “It’s my hope that we just do a one-time fix, and we don't have to have localities coming back saying ‘mother may I’ once again.”

Halifax County voters approved a ballot measure in 2019, and the district is now working to construct a new 2,500-seat high school to replace the current building. The old high school was featured on a 2021 “crumbling schools tour,” for features like a gymnasium without air conditioning.

Now, nine Virginia localities have the authority, and eight have received majority support from voters to construct new schools. Pittsylvania County’s first referendum in 2021 failed by a margin of 23 votes, but passed the following year. All of the other referendums passed with majority support the first time they were put on the ballot.

“For the localities that have been able to use this as an option, it's been an absolute game changer,” said Jeremy Bennett, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties. “And we've seen it as a proven concept now that this can work at the local level.”

Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, said he’s spoken to numerous rural school superintendents who support the legislation, because they’re trying to build new schools but their localities lack the revenue to pay for them. A 1% sales tax hike in many rural areas, he said, would raise enough money to make payments on a loan needed to finance a new school.

Perrigan, who is also superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, said multiple district leaders have reached out to Youngkin’s office to signal their support for the legislation. VPM News reached out to see if the governor plans to support or veto the bill; spokesperson Christian Martinez said in a statement that “the Governor is closely reviewing the legislation and budget language sent to his desk.”

Perrigan pointed out that the legislation, if passed, wouldn’t automatically result in a sales tax hike for any locality — just if a majority of voters approve a local ballot referendum. For example, Mecklenburg County has had the authority to seek a tax increase from its voters since 2020 — but so far has chosen not to do so.

“The beauty of that bill, I think, is that it has to come through the voters, it is not the elected officials who are making that decision,” Perrigan said. “It's a referendum by the people who live in those localities. So the people, the citizens, get to decide if it's worth having an increase in their sales tax to provide a better facility for their students.”

He said this is an important element to the bill, because tax hikes can be a burden for communities with a high percentage of residents who live in poverty.

“If the folks that live in your communities are living in poverty, to ask them to contribute more taxes is really like going to a turnip farm to have a blood drive,” Perrigan said. “I mean, it's just … the capacity is not there.”

Previous versions of the legislation failed along party-line votes in the Virginia General Assembly. Some Republican lawmakers have cited a lack of support for tax increases when questioned about their lack of support for it.

“You know, kids aren't Republicans or Democrats when they go to school. They're just kids in school,” said McPike, who is sponsoring the legislation. “Hopefully we can provide a school building that's not crumbling around them.”

In 2021, a legislative coalition estimated it’d cost about $25 billion to replace or renovate all of the state’s schools with aging infrastructure. Among the districts with needed facility upgrades is Prince Edward County, which has also requested individual authority from the Legislature for the past few years to ask voters if they’d approve a sales tax increase for new school facilities.

Cainan Townsend, a school board member in Prince Edward County, testified in support of the measure and wrote in Cardinal News that “I could not help but think of the sad irony that in 2024, I am still advocating for equity in Prince Edward Schools just as my family and many others did over 70 years ago in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.