Superintendents speak out on education budget

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Local school chiefs say state budget falls short in public education funding, but the plan could get overhauled by new administration.

By Landmark News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia’s school superintendents say that former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s budget plan to increase public education funding looks good on the surface, “it is far short of adequate.”
The school chiefs issued a statement last month in reaction to the outgoing governor’s proposal for an additional $515.3 million in education money for the next two years.
However, superintendents say this will just offset past cuts. “Over the past five years, the state has been cutting money from its education budget – highlighted by $754 million in 2009 and $244 million in 2010.”
Every two years, the state appropriates money to adjust for the actual costs of providing public education, which increase due to inflation and other factors. This adjustment, known as rebenchmarking, helps offset the financial burden carried by localities.
These funding plans were shaped under McDonnell’s tenure, but there’s a good chance they will undergo significant changes now that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has taken office, educators agree.
The General Assembly members will also want to make adjustments to the budget after using McDonnell’s last submission as a “jumping off point.”
“It’s going to be a long process,” Carroll Schools Superintendent Strader Blankenship said. “So, we’re very early in the process with the state…. it’s so early, particularly with the governors changing.”
Educators, like the Virginia Association of Schools Superintendents (VASS), hope that state officials can lift education funding back above pre-Recession levels.
But the big gorilla in the room stems from the general agreement among state officials that it’s time to catch back up with the funding that should be in the Virginia Retirement System.
At the outset of a new two-year budget period known as a biennium, legislators are considering a 24 percent increase in VRS contributions in order to get the retirement plan back on schedule, Blankenship noted. Planning calls for those hikes to continue over the next two bienniums, as well.
That’s a huge chunk of funds, and school divisions have only two places where those funds could come from — the state or the locality, he said.
There’s an idea to lessen the impact by stretching the timeline for that out to four bienniums, but it doesn’t seem very likely to occur.
“The VRS is going to put a big burden on us before we even start talking about the budget,” Blankenship said.
There are dozens of bills before the General Assembly involving schools.
One idea to come from VASS involves the state giving the localities more flexibility in spending the Standards of Quality funds from Virginia, instead of spelling out exactly where all the money is supposed to go. Blankenship said that would help the school systems meet their needs.
The budget also proposes to restore $600,000 for the Opportunity Education Institute (OEI), a controversial initiative that allows for the state to take over struggling schools.
The institution’s appointed board would assume responsibility for those schools from their local school boards and, with the help of local officials, devise turnaround strategies. The plans has not proven popular with school divisions.
When Galax Schools Superintendent Bill Sturgill heard about the budget cuts, he was disappointed in the amount appropriated to the OEI, as well as the potential burden that the reduced funding will place on the city.
“I believe it’s clear that most if not all of Virginia’s superintendents do not support the OEI initiative, so I think that’s unfortunate. I do believe the governor-elect will remove that from the budget. That would be my hope... that the money could be restored in a more beneficial way to our students,” Sturgill said in an interview with The Gazette on Dec. 31.
“The challenges all of us are facing is continuing to support staff and finding ways to educate our students. That $600,000 — we could use the money [for] more laptops, iPads or new reading programs for elementary school.”
The city is familiar with the decline in funding over the past several years. Although the budget has continued a downward slope, Sturgill is confident that the school administration’s partnership with city officials will provide the right solution as they have in previous years.
“We’ve been very fortunate over the last five or six years. Even though funds have been reduced, the City of Galax has stepped up and provided funding for the educational burden.”
Sturgill stressed that school administrators will keep an open communication with the city to draft a working budget that will continue to support staff, students and educational programs, stretching every dollar as far as it can go.
“The City of Galax has a long-standing process, a development process that preceded me. It works and we will continue that process. I feel that, irregardless of cuts, we will have a budget that will support our staff, students, existing programs and new programs we envision developing.”
VASS Executive Director Steve Staples stated in December that, “The governor’s budget proposal neither restores the funding cuts nor takes them into consideration when calculating the costs of rebenchmarking.
“In addition, the governor’s calculation is different than the rebenchmarking figures presented to the General Assembly Money Committees just a few weeks ago. Which of the three figures are localities supposed to use when planning their budgets for next year?”
Jennifer Parish, VASS legislative chair, said the budget “adds insult to injury, by not only failing to restore huge funding cuts sustained by public education over the last five years, but also by electing to fund a new initiative [OEI] that has never proven to be effective and is, we believe, unconstitutional.
“Why are we funding new, controversial programs, when we can’t afford the basic aid funding promised by the state?” Parish asked.