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Virginia public school advocates call for more funding amid myriad of challenges

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School needs presser

Public school advocates address the needs of Virginia's system during a news conference in Richmond Monday.

RICHMOND — Like the crumbling school buildings they occupy, Virginia’s students, teachers and staff also require increased support to meet modern learning needs, as state funding for public schools remains mired in outdated policy, according to a group of education advocates.

A coalition of education groups named Fund Our Schools is asking state lawmakers to approve budget measures that address student mental health challenges, retool spending standards, revisit staffing limits and boost inadequate pay, in addition to requesting help with billions’ worth of overdue school building modernization.

Taikein Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, and spoke on behalf of Fund Our Schools during a press conference at the Virginia Capitol on Monday.

“We know too well the challenges that our schools have faced for far too long,” Cooper said. “We stand unified in our call to lawmakers to fund these investments.”

Student mental health needs were increasing even before the time of the coronavirus, said Emily Griffey, chief policy officer of Voices for Virginia’s Children.

“When we speak to students and parents right now, it is mental health that is often at the top of their mind when it comes not only to their education, but to their well-being,” Griffey said. “We have to meet this moment and invest in student mental health resources.”

She said Fund Our Schools is supportive of lawmakers’ proposals to enact a process for student mental health screenings, and to create a $10 million fund for integrating mental health care contractors into schools.

A January survey of Virginia educators found that 90% of respondents reported symptoms of professional burnout, said Virginia Education Association Government Relations Director Shane Riddle.

“Low pay in Virginia is contributing to teacher and other staff shortages,” Riddle said. “The staffing shortage is getting worse.”

In the short term for Virginia, $51 million of federal funding is available to attract and retain key school positions including bus drivers and food service workers, he said. In the midterm, staffing shortages are unlikely to improve until significant pay raises are funded by the state.

"When compared to other professionals of similar education experience, Virginia's teachers are paid less than teachers in any state in the country. This is inexcusable,” Riddle said. “We support the 10% pay increase for educators and school staff in the proposed budget, and view this as the minimum needed to get us within sight of the national averages for teacher salaries.”

Funding formulated during the Great Recession in 2009 and unchanged today sets an arbitrary cap on state aid for school support staff like guidance counselors, nurses and special education aides, said Jenna Alexander, president-elect of the Virginia Parent Teacher Association.

“We know that building quality impacts student success. We know that a high-quality, respected workforce impacts student success. We know that differentiated instruction and low class sizes impact student success,” Alexander said. “Yet for the better part of the decade, there has been little to no investment in these basics that impact every school community across Virginia.”

Between 2009 and 2020, support staffing in Virginia schools declined by 1,700 positions while enrollment increased by 63,000 students, said Ashley Kenneth, president and CEO of The Commonwealth Institute.

“If we’re doing an honest accounting, so much of what ails us now traces back to decisions that were made more than a decade ago during the Great Recession,” Kenneth said. “Each year that we wait to fully fund our schools, the task becomes more difficult.”

All of this comes on top of a $25 billion need for school building improvements in a state where more than half of all learning facilities have been in use for more than 50 years, said Peter Gretz, vice president for the Virginia Coalition of Small and Rural Schools.

“Too many schools are in desperate need of attention: infrastructure upgrades, renovations, new construction,” Gretz said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress in that regard. Specifically, we’re so grateful for the work to establish $500 million in state support for school construction that is currently in the state budget.”

That $500 million would represent the first investment the state has made to address school facilities since 2009, he said. It would be a small dent in the prevailing need, but a powerful first step for schools, he said.

The need for new school facilities is especially notable in places with smaller tax bases, as is the case for Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Kristy Somerville-Midgette, who said new school construction in her division is a major burden on local taxpayers.

“We really need a greater level of state aid to fund construction and renovation costs, particularly in communities like ours,” Somerville-Midgette said. “We deserve that funding to make sure there’s an ongoing commitment to providing better facilities for the children to come.”

With an unprecedented state budget surplus this year, Virginia possesses resources to make these school investments, said The Commonwealth Institute’s Kenneth. Lawmakers should be skeptical of tax proposals that would cut state resources, she said.

“One basic idea unites all of the diverse organizations here today,” she said. “It’s a conviction that if ever there was a time to redouble our commitment to public education, that time is now.”

Cooper, with Virginia Excels, said he understands the need to be responsive to families’ growing financial needs, but schools need more than a bandage to fix their long-term challenges.

“It really boils down to politics,” Cooper said. “We all wish that we could lower taxes, but what I’ve seen … people are willing to pay more in taxes, despite a pandemic, to improve schools.”

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Luke Weir covers higher education and state government. He can be reached at (540) 566-8917 or luke.weir@roanoke.com

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