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State may OK school construction referendum

Isle of Wight County could take the question of raising local sales taxes to pay for new school buildings to voters through a referendum if legislation in the General Assembly ultimately becomes law.

Senate Bill 1170 would make Isle of Wight the 10th jurisdiction in the state to have permission to raise taxes for school-related capital projects. The law stipulates that local voters would have to approve the move in a locally-initiated referendum.

The bill passed the Senate in a 31-8 vote. It was referred to the House of Delegates Finance Committee as of Feb. 5. Other jurisdictions approved for the school tax-related referendums are Danville and the counties of Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania.

If enacted during this legislative session, the bill would become effective July 1.

In a statement, Isle of Wight Superintendent Jim Thornton said he backs the bill.

“This legislation provides an opportunity for the county to replace aging schools while lessening the tax burden on citizens usually associated with school construction. I commend them for pursuing this option through the General Assembly and am 100% supportive of this proposal.”

If this legislation and ultimately, the referendum passes, it would generate about $2.3 million annually, according to assistant county administrator Don Robertson. That money could be used to support two projects — the construction of new buildings that would house Hardy Elementary and Westside Elementary.

Hardy will cost an estimated $27 million and Westside will cost $40 million, according to Isle of Wight school division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs. Plans are in the works to replace Hardy, Briggs said.

On Feb. 25, the school board plans to approve the construction management at risk company to oversee the project, Briggs said. Using that approach streamlines the design and build process. Once other planning and review steps are completed, construction should start in June.

The project is slated for completion in December 2022. The new building will be constructed behind the existing school. It will be designed to house about 800 pre-K through fourth grade students. Once the new Hardy building opens, the current building, which opened in 1961 according to public property records, will be demolished.

“There is no timeline for [Westside] since the project has not yet been approved by the county,” Briggs said. Consequently, “the county has not borrowed or budgeted funding for Westside Elementary yet,” Robertson said.

Once bids are in, Robertson said, the county will know exactly how much funding is needed for Hardy. Isle of Wight’s 2020-2021 fiscal year capital budget included $11 million for that new school. In the fall, Isle of Wight issued general obligation bonds for over $30 million in anticipation of the Hardy Elementary construction project and other approved capital projects, Robertson said.

“Regardless as to whether or not the legislation advances, the county will need to borrow additional funding (likely over $30 million) for the Westside Elementary project and other capital needs,” Robertson continued. “The revenue generated from the additional sales tax (allowed by SB1170) can be used to pay the debt service (loan payments) for the school construction projects. If SB1170 does not advance, additional revenue would be needed to pay the debt service. The additional revenue needed would necessitate an increase in local revenues equivalent to a 4 to 5 cents increase in real estate taxes,” he said.

A 2013 study by the state Department of Education under former Gov. Bob McDonnell found that more than 60% of Virginia’s approximately 2,000 public school buildings and facilities were at least 40 years old at that time.