Northam’s $250 million HVAC funding leaves training advocates underwhelmed

Governor Ralph Northam plans to provide $ 250 million in federal aid to HVAC improvements in K-12 schools, but education advocates and actual school system administrators want more fairness in how the money is distributed and more flexibility in how it is used.

The investment in ventilation systems, a recurring focus In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it came as no surprise, said Chad Stewart, manager of education policy and development at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. But he and many advocates, including other members of the Promote our school coalition, say they are stunned by the structure of the proposal, which will have to be approved in a special session of the General Assembly next month.

“What’s unique, at least from the details so far, is the total lack of equity,” said Stewart. Many of the government’s school funding programs are based on a department’s local composite index. a measure of its ability To bear educational costs. But under Northam’s suggestion, municipalities would have to use their own life-saving funds to cover the state contribution, which would be calculated based on student attendance totaling $ 500 million.

In practice, the program would favor large districts like Fairfax County while largely ignoring small, poverty-stricken districts without the same solvency, said Rachael Deane, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program. For many local administrators, however, there is an even more fundamental problem.

Since the pandemic began, Virginia schools have received more than $ 2.8 billion in federal aid dedicated to public education. Divisions were given the flexibility to use that money on HVAC improvements, and many have already done so. In Richmond City, for example, 47 modernizations have been completed since March 2020, according to the state school construction and modernization commission. In Brunswick County there were 61, with 189 still in progress.

“So this funding really is double what we can do already,” said Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Public Schools and president of the Coalition for Small and Rural Schools of Virginia. “Yes, there are divisions that will benefit from providing additional HVAC funding. But so many of us were really looking for more flexibility. “

Northam’s office said the Virginia Department of Education analyzed 117 school department capital improvement plans that set out projects they would like to complete over the next decade.

“After plans for new builds and renovations, school departments were most likely to have planned HVAC repair and replacement projects, totaling 463 HVAC projects valued at $ 623 million. Governor Northam’s investment will ensure the completion of almost all projects currently planned, ”his office said.

calls for a proactive approach to school building

Expanding the scope of school improvement projects has emerged as a pressing issue in the run-up to the General Assembly’s special meeting next week. According to the latest data from the Ministry of Education, more than half of all school buildings are more than 50 years old. The total replacement cost is estimated to be more than $ 24.7 billion. But with a $ 2.6 billion budget surplus and unprecedented influx With federal funding, many local administrators hoped that the state would take a more proactive role in school construction.

This is mainly due to the Limitations that the school departments have encountered when it comes to education-specific support. The American Rescue Plan provided $ 1.9 billion directly to local counties through the Elementary and Middle School Emergency Fund (better known as ESSER). However, that money must be spent by September 2024. And because of the accelerated schedule, current federal guidelines strongly discourage using it for building new schools or major renovations, according to James Lane, the state’s superintendent for public education.

This is where discretionary funding could come into play, at least according to education advocates. Most of the $ 4.3 billion that state lawmakers are debating is not earmarked, which means they are largely flexible in how they are allocated. And unlike ESSER funds, this money doesn’t have to be spent until 2026.

“This is really important because it is much better suited for school infrastructure projects,” said Stewart. The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis is a member of the Virginia Fund Our Schools Coalition, which has general modernization efforts as one of its the four main priorities for discretionary federal rescue financing. The state school authority has also asked US $ 2 billion in federal aid for a wider range of construction projects – which, according to the agency’s budget request, could include HVAC improvements. But a number of other options were also listed, including building renovations, grounds maintenance, and making school buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Much of the disagreement has to do with how flexible the rescue plan funding really is. While the US Treasury has advised against building schools, particularly through ESSER funds, there is more flexibility through the so-called “provision for income losses”. Under the department latest instructionsGovernments have “wide leeway” to spend lost revenue on a wide range of services, including schools and education, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stewart said the carve-out gives Virginia much more headroom to invest in school infrastructure. However, the administration takes a different approach.

“As you know, there is significant ambiguity in the school building guidelines and our finance team believes it is cleaner to put that money into ventilation and HVAC upgrades,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email from Monday. Nationwide, there is also disagreement about how much Virginia should invest in local school buildings. Since 2010, no funds have been earmarked for building needs in the state budget. Some lawmakers have argued that municipalities are responsible for increasing tax rates in order to provide more school funding.

“There is still no consensus that the Commonwealth will take over the building of the school, which has long been a local responsibility,” Yarmosky continued. “Therefore, the governor and the general assembly have decided to give priority to funding ventilation in schools while awaiting the report from the school modernization committee this fall.”

Proponents, however, say improvements in HVAC are nowhere near the needs of local schools. According to Yarmosky, the American bailout plan is “forward-looking,” which means that funding can only be used for projects that started after March 3rd (when the law was signed). That means many departments are not getting reimbursed for ventilation projects that have already been completed – districts are being “penalized” for taking proactive measures to make their buildings safer, Deane said.

There are also more general concerns that funding restrictions will force schools to spend millions on obsolete buildings. Perrigan said there are already two schools in Bristol that the VDOE recommended closing before the pandemic.

“So if we were advised to close it, why should we invest money to improve its air quality?” He said. “Adding new air conditioning to a 1920s and 1940s building – that just doesn’t seem like a good use of taxpayers’ money.”


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