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School leaders decry McDonnell's education plans

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Superintendents in Virginia oppose governor’s initiatives, including funding shifts that amount to cuts, changes in teacher contracts and unfunded educational mandates.

Landmark News Service and Staff Reports

RICHMOND  — Virginia’s school superintendents took aim at a couple of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s key legislative initiatives Tuesday, calling them unfunded mandates that would cause crippling budget cuts in local school divisions across the state.
Particularly onerous, they said, is the Republican governor’s proposal to pump an unprecedented $2.2 billion into Virginia’s underfunded state retirement system.
About half of that money would have to come from localities. The superintendents said virtually all Virginia school divisions would face drastic budget shortfalls as a result, leading to staff cuts, bigger classes and diminished quality of education.
An ongoing survey of the state’s 134 school divisions has turned up numerous estimates of multimillion-dollar budget gaps, Albemarle County Superintendent Pam Moran, president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said at a news conference.
Just through the local composite index change and the governor’s budget proposal, Carroll schools expect to come up a million dollars short, said Schools Superintendent Greg Smith.
This year, it’s unlikely there will be another round of federal stimulus funds to take up the slack. Carroll schools had used the stimulus funds to save jobs in the past.
Statewide, the Virginia retirement system shortfall has grown because state leaders haven’t been putting in enough to maintain it properly, school officials have said.
A better approach, the superintendents said, would be shoring up the retirement system with incremental increases over a period of years.
Though Gov. McDonnell’s announcements and press releases with its promise of $438 million more for education and then an addition of another $58 million, Smith noted there are restrictions on that money.
Those funds cannot be spent in a way that would close the budget deficits that many school systems across the state continue to struggle with, Smith noted.
“Currently, the legislation and budget announcements we’ve seen have not given us any indication the governor’s office has heard these concern,” Carroll’s superintendent said.
Smith pointed out that the General Assembly session has just gotten underway, and school representatives have shared their concerns with local legislators.
The final budget figures may change before the close of the session. Smith hopes the legislators will find a way to decrease the overall expected shortfall of about $2 million for Carroll.
“We’re lobbying hard locally and at the state level to get our message across,” Smith said.
The superintendents also attacked McDonnell’s proposal to replace Virginia’s current open-ended teacher contracts with a one-year contract tied to teachers’ performance evaluations, a measure the governor says would help weed out poor teachers.
Calling the proposal “a clear expansion of state mandates without funding,”
Gloucester County Superintendent Ben Kiser, president-elect of the superintendents’ association, said annual contracts and evaluations would require additional administrative staff without improving the quality of education.
“In the current political environment, teachers seem to be easy targets for criticism,” Kiser said. “This rhetoric alone will discourage many capable individuals from considering the profession.”
The state is pursuing a wrongheaded course of more testing, fewer resources, punitive measures and more options for parents to desert the public schools, Kiser said.
“Once all of the bad teachers and administrators are fired, and new ones are hired, without quality support to help the new ones to become proficient, they will be fired in a few years as well,” Kiser said. “Is this really the cycle for long-term improvement in public education?”
Jeff Caldwell, a McDonnell spokesman, said the governor’s proposal for annual teacher contracts “treats teachers like the professionals they are and rewards our best teachers for their success in educating our students.”
Caldwell also said McDonnell is proposing nearly $500 million in new funding for K-12 education that will help reduce the state retirement system’s unfunded liability. “The governor’s proposed budget puts more funding into our schools for our students of today, while also strengthening the retirement system that our dedicated teachers will depend upon tomorrow,” he said.
The superintendents also oppose legislative proposals to require daily physical education for K-12 students with no additional funding, require school personnel to investigate the immigration status of students taking English as a second language, allow home-schooled students to participate in interscholastic sports, and take away local school boards’ authority over charter school applications.
One McDonnell proposal drew praise from the superintendents: repealing the state law that prohibits schools from opening before Labor Day without getting special permission. That measure would give school divisions needed flexibility in setting their calendars, they said.