Assembly Wants to Renovate Schools, Expand Broadband With Rescue Funds

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By Brian Carlton

June 24, 2021

Priorities outlined as Gov. Northam calls for an Aug. 2 special session to determine how to spend American Rescue Plan funds.

RICHMOND-Virginia’s General Assembly will be heading back to Richmond Aug. 2. When they arrive, school buildings and broadband will be on the menu. Gov. Ralph Northam made that announcement Wednesday, calling the legislature back into session to decide how to spend the state’s portion of the American Rescue Plan funds. 

When President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan this spring, it established a $350 billion fund to help states recover from the pandemic. Virginia gets pieces of that in three different ways. First, there’s $2.9 billion, given out to cities and counties. We went over what each area gets right here. Albemarle County, for example, gets $21.2 million, while Bath County will get $805,000. Each city and county will decide how to spend the extra money. 

Beyond that is the state funding. Virginia gets $4.29 billion, which the General Assembly decides how to spend. That’s why we’ll have our second special session of the year just over a month from now. 

“Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, we have a unique opportunity to fund public schools, support small businesses, achieve universal broadband access and make generational investments in our shared future,” Northam said. “I look forward to working with legislators to get it done.” 

Outlining Their Priorities

And with that simple statement, Northam highlighted several of the spending priorities for the state. Overall, Assembly officials have detailed five key projects they want to address with the American Rescue Plan funding. 

The biggest one involves schools. As it stands, 41% of Virginia school buildings are either at or over student capacity. Another 29% are almost full. 

It’s not just a capacity problem. According to records from the Virginia Department of Education, school buildings are also getting older. The average age of a school in Southside, Southwest and Western Virginia is 58 years. The Northern Neck has the youngest schools, but even their average age stands at 32 years. Some of the buildings still in use were built before Prohibition. The education records show all regions except the Northern Neck have a building over 100 years old. The oldest is in Bedford County, where New London Academy Elementary was built in 1837 and still houses students. 

But renovations or new construction is extensive. Too expensive for local cities and counties to do on their own. That’s why the state plans to step in with this American Rescue Plan funding. Under the details released this week, Assembly leaders want to “modernize public school buildings across Virginia.” 

How would they do that? By upgrading existing buildings, improving air quality and HVAC systems and improving overall safety.

Spending American Rescue Plan Money on Broadband

Beyond schools, the biggest priority is expanding broadband. Overall, just 53% of homes in the Commonwealth have broadband access. Eleven percent of Virginians don’t have internet access of any kind, according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report. So how do you fix that problem? By speeding up a state plan. 

If you look at the data, an estimated 697,000 Virginians do not have access to a wired internet connection of 25 Mbps or more. There are also 608,000 Virginians who have access to only one internet service provider. Another 306,000 Virginians don’t have access to any wired internet options at all.That’s left plenty of students sitting in fast food restaurant parking lots, public school parking lots and library parking lots, some of which offered free Wi-Fi. Others dealt with unstable connections, but powered through.

The current proposal would take a 10-year plan and condense it into 18 months. That means providing access to everyone by early 2023.

Two Out of Three

The final priorities include workers and public health. Money from the American Rescue Plan will be used to “upgrade long-underfunded state and local public health services,” the governor’s special session order says. It’ll also provide funds for more affordable housing and help people currently struggling with paying utilities. 

No company can currently just shut off utilities in the Commonwealth. The State Corporation Commission issued several orders to prevent that last September. First, they ordered all utilities to offer customers an extended payment plan up to 12 months. Second, they required companies waive all late fees for anyone in an extended payment or other good-faith repayment plan. The companies also have to submit quarterly reports to the Commission. Those reports will detail the current number and status of all repayment plans.

But that doesn’t do anything about the people who are struggling to pay. Northam and Assembly leaders will take a look during the session and see if there are ways the state can help. One thing they can do is continue to repair the Virginia Employment Commission, which is another part of the plan. The Assembly plans to fund the Unemployment Trust Fund, which ran out of money last year and needed a federal loan to keep functioning. The unemployment trust, which had capital reserves of more than $1.4 billion prior to the pandemic, entirely depleted those state funds over the first seven months of the pandemic. Assembly leaders also want to continue funding the VEC’s computer upgrade and make sure it has enough staff to avoid a repeat of recent problems.

Nothing Set For American Rescue Plan Funds

Now none of this is set in stone. It just sets a roadmap of sorts for the special session, giving a framework for debate and discussion. With the new session starting Aug. 2, it’s likely a decision on the ARP funds will be made by the middle of the month.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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