A state House finance subcommittee of eight delegates on Friday will once again consider a set of bills aimed at giving localities more options to fund school construction projects.
Last month, the same subcommittee killed three similar House bills, two of which were sponsored by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. One of the three Senate bills on the subcommittee’s agenda would give all localities the ability — via a voter referendum — to increase the local sales tax in order to pay for school construction projects. The other two would give just Charlottesville and Isle of Wight that authority. All three passed the state Senate last month.
State Sen. Creigh Deeds is carrying Senate Bill 298, which is the Charlottesville-specific bill. He told the Daily Progress last week that the bill is facing an uphill battle.
“If you can get to the floor, it’ll pass, that’s the bottom line, but it’s not an easy path forward,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that it is, and people shouldn’t get their hopes too high. But there is a way forward.”
Several Republican lawmakers on the House finance subcommittee, including the chairwoman as well as Dels. Nick Freitas and Chris Runion, did not respond to an interview request regarding the bills.
The subcommittee will meet at 7:30 a.m. Friday.
Not receiving the authority for the sales tax increase would likely complicate the city’s plans to renovate and expand Buford Middle School — the most expensive chunk of an estimated $75 million first phase of a multi-pronged plan to change where grades are located in the city school division. It would also centralize preschool at one building. In order to stay on track with the project’s current timeline, the Charlottesville City Council needs to decide next month whether to move forward with it.
The General Assembly has authorized nine other localities to issue a voter referendum since Halifax County proposed the idea in 2019. Under the legislation, the localities would be able to increase the general retail sales tax by up to 1% if voters approve the measure in a referendum.
Prince Edward County also sought the ability to ask voters for permission to raise the sales tax, but that House bill from Del. James Edmunds, R-South Boston, also didn’t move forward. Edmunds, who brought the Halifax proposal forward, told the South Boston News & Record that he was blindsided by the subcommittee’s decision.
“I have never been as upset in my 13 years being in state office as I was in that moment,” he told the newspaper. “I don’t know if the days of sales taxes for school construction are over and Halifax is just among the lucky ones.”
Charlottesville officials have said the sales tax increase could bring in $12 million a year, which would go toward the Buford project. The so-called reconfiguration project has been discussed for years, though not moved forward because of funding concerns.
Officials have said the project is a way to upgrade Buford — which opened in 1966 — and provide a more comprehensive middle school experience by moving sixth grade to Buford. The project also would increase the division’s capacity to accommodate more students. Fifth-graders would move back to the elementary schools. The final change would be to centralize the city’s preschoolers at the Walker Upper Elementary campus, which currently houses fifth and sixth grade.
The city’s roughly 200 preschoolers are spread across the six elementary schools in 20 classrooms. Officials have said that a centralized preschool would allow teachers to better collaborate and connect with families, which would mean a better experience for students.
Without the sales tax increase, councilors have said in recent meetings and interviews that moving forward with the Buford project will be more difficult given the other capital projects and priorities of the city.
That’s because paying for the $75 million project and the other items in the five-year capital improvement program would require a 10-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, exhaust the city’s debt and limit the city’s ability to start new capital projects for a decade, officials have said.
With real estate assessments up by an average 11.69%, councilors and community members have balked at the 10-cent increase to the rate, which is currently 95 cents per $100 of assessed value and hasn’t gone up since 1981.
Securing the authority for the sales tax increase is the top priority for the city this legislative session. Several local officials spoke in favor of the bills at hearings in the last month, and the Charlottesville School Board recently decided to hire a lobbying firm to help ensure the bill’s passage.
To watch the meeting, go to https://virginiageneralassembly.gov/house/chamber/chamberstream.php.