By James Roberts, Superintendent of Schools, Chesapeake City
debt service in the 2009 through 2013 fiscal years. Real estate collections were down during this time, though, and the recovery was slow. Chesapeake Public Schools received less funding from the state and from the city during the recession.
Thanks to the recession, we have a backlog of capital projects — HVAC projects, roof replacements, other modernizations and replacements, new tracks, and yes, stadiums. All of them need to be done. Now that there is some recovery in local funding, we can work on some capital improvement projects, but we must prioritize.
We can’t put the need for a new football stadium ahead of the large backlog of HVAC repairs and roof replacements. That wouldn’t be the best use of the money we have available. However, as long as we depend only on local funding, we will never catch up with all our needs.
I don’t agree with increasing taxes to pay for schools’ capital needs. Instead, I believe state funding should provide it.
Our local colleges and universities receive state funding for their capital needs. Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University and Tidewater Community College do not have buildings as old as our schools.
One of the largest increases in the state budget in the past few years has been in debt service, most of which is related to capital projects for higher education. That’s a 20-year funding commitment by the state. I know adding capital funding for K-12 schools would mean a major increase for the state budget, but if it can be done for higher education, it can be done for school divisions.
We are using a special savings account for capital projects, which allows us to go into debt, to replace Great Bridge Primary School. That will need 20 years of repayments.
Chittum Elementary School and Indian River Middle School will be next in line for this type of funding, but prioritizing for those projects will mean we have to delay smaller projects. With more debt, we will have less money for the operating budget. It’s a clear catch-22. So how do we pay for the stadiums and tracks that are so badly needed?
From 2009 to 2017, the total state operating budget increased by 40 percent. During the same period, the funding Chesapeake Public Schools received from the state decreased by 2.7 percent.
The School Board can’t meet every educational need under these circumstances. They can’t make everyone happy. I have repeatedly pressed our state government to restore operating funds that were cut during the recession so that we could return to funding small projects and relieve pressure on our capital needs. Now, however, we are beyond where we could catch up.
One small part of state cuts (from some lottery proceeds) was restored. But we’ve been short by $9-$10 million each year since 2009. That’s a total of more than $80 million.
Now local school divisions, including Chesapeake, are facing a major shortage of teachers. Competition among divisions is fierce. We have had only minimal solutions at best.
The real problem with low pay for teachers in Virginia lies with state funding. Without realistic, sustainable state funding, our teacher pay won’t attract quality candidates into the profession, and good teachers are key to the success of our core responsibility.
And, of course, competition between our own operating needs (mainly pay for teaching and support staff) and our capital needs (such as roof, HVAC systems and stadiums) will only increase.
It is not the local government’s responsibility to make up for the state funding shortfall. Most localities already provide almost double their required amounts. So which source of funding — local or state — should be stepped up?
State legislators need to recognize that quality public schools are Virginia’s greatest economic tool. Our schools attract businesses and the workers for those businesses, and educate the children of those workers in those businesses.
The state is not providing adequate funding even for its minimum standards. No Virginian, no Hampton Roads resident, wants the least for his or her children or grandchildren. Our students, and our taxpayers, deserve more.
Jim’s article appeared in the Guest Column of the Feb. 4 edition of the Virginian-Pilot.