Help Our Aging Public Schools

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Every year at the state and local level of government, budget debates include funding issues surrounding our K-12 public schools.  Teacher salaries and class size are usually the focus, and competing comparisons compensation and limited budget dollars are always at issue.

But rarely do we discuss one of the on-going and increasing problems facing a large number of our rural and city school districts.  And that is the physical deterioration of many of our school buildings.  There are as many as 40% of the school buildings in Virginia which were built prior to 1960, and many of those buildings are in dire need of renewal today.  The electrical systems, the HVAC systems, the actual lighting fixtures, the insulation, the roofs and so much more are in bad shape.  And when these school buildings are physically ailing they damage the quality of the surrounding neighborhoods.  And, in reverse, if the local schools are in good shape they can be a catalyst for renewing the neighborhoods around them.

With this in mind there are two innovative efforts going on here in Virginia that can go a long way in renewing the physical structures where our children daily spend eight hours or more in a an effort to be educated.  Clearly, a building that is dreadfully deteriorating is not conducive to our kids learning.

A question on the Richmond ballot next Tuesday focuses on this issue.  If passed, it will require the Mayor to produce an improvement plan for the public school buildings without a tax increase or to officially take the position that this simply cannot be done.  This ballot initiative focuses on a real need in Richmond – the terrible shape of many of the public school buildings – and requires the leadership of the city to figure out how to deal with this too-often-ignored issue.

This ballot initiative is supported by a large cross section of the leadership in the city. How the voters see this issue will be important to how the city decides to handle it.  Deteriorating schools will not disappear with Richmond’s vote on Tuesday. But how and if this problem is confronted will be determined by the voters.

And directly tied to this issue is a national effort to make a relatively minor change in the federal law to encourage private sector money to help renew these aging school buildings that are crumbling due to lack of resources. Richmond’s support of this ballot initiative can be an important first step to changing the federal law and encouraging hundreds of millions of private sector dollars, and even more nationally, to rehab our nation’s older school buildings.

A bi-partisan effort by Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, along with former Senator George Allen and others, supports a simple change in the federal tax credit code for saving historic buildings in this country.

The current law allows a substantial tax credit for taking an old, historic building and renewing it as long as the use of the “new” building is not the same as for the “old” one.  So when Donald Trump secured the contract to “renew” the historic Old Post Office in Washington DC and turn it into a beautiful “new” hotel, he was able to quality for tens of millions of dollars in federal tax credits.

But the current law does not allow a “renewed” building to be used for the same purpose as the “old” one.  This means there are no federal tax credits for using private sector dollars to renew public school buildings if those buildings are used for public education once they are “renewed.”  This is clearly not in the best interests of the community and this law should be changed to include public school buildings as part of the available tax credits.

If federal tax credits were available to encourage private sector investment in these older public schools, many could well be modernized over the next few years.  And updated, modernized local schools will encourage the re-development of surrounding area.  The neighborhood schools have always been a “draw” or a “hindrance” to the quality of the local neighborhood.  A modernized school sends the message to the students, parents and homeowners that cares about them just as deteriorating schools send a message that these kids and their education are not a priority.

Tax monies are limited and making federal tax credits available for renewing these schools makes good sense.  We are most willing to bring private dollars to the table in public private partnerships to build new roads, or improve existing roads, or to save an historic building as long as that building is used for a different purpose.  It is long past time to let federal historic tax credits be available to those willing to rebuild our aging public school buildings.

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About Mike Thompson

Michael Thompson is currently the Chairman and President of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, the state’s premier independent public policy foundation that has gained broad based respect from political and business leaders throughout Virginia. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Thomas Jefferson Institute or its Board of Directors.
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