City schools capital improvement funding addressed

On Jan. 7, Danville City Council passed a resolution asking permission from the General Assembly to conduct a referendum on creating an additional one-percent sales tax to provide for construction and renovation for Danville schools.

If approved by the General Assembly, the city could have a referendum about the one-percent tax, in which citizens will be able to decide whether to approve the tax or not.

City council asked for the same permission that was given Halifax County last year, and their referendum was passed in November.

Following city council’s vote, Danville Public Schools’ (DPS) Superintendent Dr. Stanley Jones says there is a lot of misinformation about school finance and how the school system receives funding for the capital improvement projects in the schools.

“We don’t get any capital money from the state period,” Jones said.

It is a common misconception that Virginia Lottery Funds are set to go towards facility updates, but according to Jones, this is not the case.

Lottery funds are strictly operational and go towards specific programs mandated by the state.

Jones said that during the recession in 2009, general fund dollars were reduced and replaced with lottery funds. Before that time, lottery funds were earmarked towards capital projects.

“I understand why they did that because it reduces the burden on taxpayers and puts the burden on people who purchase lottery tickets, but when they replaced the general fund money with lottery fund money, it gave us less of it,” Jones said.

According to Chief Operations Officer Dr. Kathy Osborne, lottery funds are dispersed based on the number of students in the school system, which is approximately 5,500 currently, which has risen and is projected to stay.

The money received, which was $7.1 million in fiscal year 2019 as stated on the Virginia Lottery’s website, goes towards programs such as early reading intervention, class size reduction programs, Virginia Preschool Initiative, Project Graduation, English as a Second Language, foster children education, special education, alternative education, career and technical education, and more.

“It used to be years ago that we got an X allocation of lottery money for capital and we also got state construction money for capital and those went away,” Osborne said.

Osborne said DPS has asked city council for an allocation, and they have been providing $2 million per year since 2016.

This money goes towards the upkeep of roofs, boilers, parking lots, heating and air and security systems and more.

“When we did our multi-year financial analysis with the city, the recommendation was that until such time that we can renovate, build or replace our schools, we need to continue to focus on our systems, HVAC, roofs, plumbing, just the infrastructure so that they’re functional,” Jones said. “Ideally, they should be 21st century.”

DPS has been working with RRMM Architects since 2017 to identify needs for four schools built in the 1950s, George Washington High School, Langston High School, G. L. H. Johnson Elementary School and Woodberry Hills Elementary School, with an estimated gross price tag of $150 million.

With the last renovations done on the schools in the early 2000s, RRMM has created potential capital improvement plans to making the schools ADA compliant and conducive to a 21st century learning environment.

Osborne stated that, fortunately, the schools have “good bones,” so they won’t have to necessarily level the buildings, just build upon what’s already there.

“The finishes in some of our schools are old and they need replacing,” Osborne said. “We have some cafeterias that are a bit smaller than they need to be, those kinds of things.”

In addition, changes in entrances on the outside and inside could help allow for parents to be more secure in sending their children to the schools with a 21st century look.

“Mostly, folks don’t care about the bones,” Osborne said. “They want to know, how is my child going to be throughout the day? Are they going to be in a place that looks fresh and that they feel good about?”

Going forward, Jones said that the school system may have to be very specific about what this means for the schools, so the public will know what the goals are if the tax is supported.

Jones said that there is a moral responsibility around supporting school renovation efforts.

“How do you justify, in a community like ours where you have a large number of under resourced kids, a large number of students of color and a growing population of English language learners, of not creating 21st century learning spaces?” Jones said. “Isn’t there a moral responsibility to make sure that our kids have the kind of facilities that you have in the county and other places in the state and in the United States?”

Jones said the children in Danville are just as deserving of high quality learning facilities as any other community.

At the General Assembly, Delegate Danny Marshall has introduced HB486, which addresses additional sales and use tax in the city of Danville, as well as Pittsylvania and Henry Counties.

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