Wednesday, October 21, 2020

School Health Plan Transparency Bill Signed by Governor Northam

This morning Governor Northam signed a series of billsrelated to COVID-19. Among them was Senate Bill 5083 from Senator Jennifer McClellan. The VEA initiated this legislation and we are grateful to Senator McClellan for carrying the bill for us. We must also mention Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy who filed the identical bill on our behalf in the House, but her bill stalled when it was referred to a committee that never met.

SB5083 requires all public school divisions to make their COVID-19 health and safety plans public and available on their web site in an easy-to-access location. The bill is clear that what is posted should be what was submitted to the VA Department of Education under an order of the VA Health Commissioner. It should not be a few bullets, or a summary. The actual plan needs to be made available. This is a big win for our members as they look for specific information on what their employer will do to keep them safe on the job.

Over the summer, as VEA was engaged on many state-level committees that focused on school reopening, it became clear that while all school divisions would be required to draft and submit a health, safety, and mitigation plan to the VA DOE, there was no requirement that these plans would be made public or easy to access. That is why VEA initiated SB5083. Our members need to know what is in these plans, and now they will be able to access that information.

So what does this mean? SB5083 has an emergency clause, so it is law effective after passage (with a 4/5 majority in both bodies) and the Governor’s signature. School divisions must now all post their plans. Our members should look for these plans, review them, and hold their divisions accountable to the contents of the plans. If there is something in the plan that is not being delivered, members should take that to school leadership and the school board, working with their local Union leaders and UniServ Directors. If there are specific things that should be included in the plan based on CDC recommendations or VA DOE guidance, take that to your school leadership and school board. As decisions are made about returning to in-person instruction, school divisions need to demonstrate their ability to implement five key mitigation strategies.

  1. Consistent and correct use of masks
  2. Social distancing to the largest extent possible
  3.  Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
  4. Cleaning and disinfection
  5. Contact tracing in collaboration with local health department

Look for specifics on these items in the plan.

 As we continue to deal with this pandemic, access to information is critical. The passage of SB5083 is am important win for students, educators, communities, and the VEA. We are grateful to Senator McClellan, Governor Northam, and members of the General Assembly for supporting this important piece of legislation.

 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Is Special Session Over? What Happened?

You saw our post about the conference budget report. The House and Senate agreed to the compromise budget that included both the funding for the lost sales tax revenues and student enrollment hold harmless language (ADM). This was a huge victory for our public schools. These two actions will save us all from deep and significant cuts to our current school year budgets. You can read my assessment of the budget agreement here.

In normal times, agreement on the budget conference report is the last act before the General Assembly adjourns. This is not the case for this Special Session. One item not included in the conference budget report is funding associated with implementing a new amendment to Virginia’s Constitution. As you may know, there is a Constitutional amendment question on the ballot this Election Day. (Go to our Voter Guide and see the item on Question 1.) The question pertains to the establishment of a Redistricting Commission to construct new House and Senate districts as required every 10 years. If the amendment passes and is added to the Constitution, the Governor will propose an addition to the Conference Budget to cover the cost of establishing the Commission.

Here is where the fun of legislative processes comes into play. If a bill is received by the Governor for his signature while the General Assembly is still in session (not yet adjourned), the Governor has 7 days to take action on the bill. If the General Assembly adjourns, bills that arrive at the Governor’s desk at that point are 30-day bills and he has 30 days to act on those. Knowing that the election is less than 30 days away, the General Assembly has not adjourned so that the budget bill remains a 7-day bill. The goal now is to get the budget bill to the Governor as close to Election Day as possible so that the results on the Constitutional amendment will be known when he acts on the budget. Normally it would take about 7 days to get a bill that is agreed to, enrolled, signed by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, get it back to staff to send over to the Governor’s office, but the budget can take longer. So, while the budget is agreed to, it will not be signed until after Election Day. At that time, the Governor will make changes to the budget and send it back to the General Assembly for final agreement. It looks like the General Assembly will come back the week before Thanksgiving to take up any action by the Governor on the budget. Of course, the election results will take more time than normal to be certified because of the huge increase in voting by mail (absentee balloting), so this date is still to be officially determined.

In a year with so much uncertainty, I hoped we would have a signed, sealed, and delivered budget as soon as possible. But that just is not the case. It is intentional, but it keeps us waiting. I feel very confident about the items we were able to secure in the budget adopted during the Special Session, but our items are caught up in some of the maneuvering to give the Governor the chance to address the passage of a Constitutional amendment.

2020 just keeps giving me heartburn.

!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Conference Budget Avoids Worst, Victory on Sales Tax and ADM Protection

 October 15, 2020

Word started breaking late yesterday that there was an agreement between House and Senate Budget Conferees on the amendments to the 2020-2022 Biennial Budget. The conference report eventually was made available for us to see. I won’t lie to you—I was completely relieved when I was able to take a quick look at a couple of top lines.

First thing I looked for was Average Daily Membership (ADM) hold harmless language. As you know, most school divisions have seen a decline in student enrollment as result of COVID-19. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) estimates a decline of just about 40,000 students state-wide. While that is a small percentage of the 1.2 million students in our public schools, the decline would result in cuts in the CURRENT YEAR school budgets of up to $150 million. Those cuts would be devastating to most school budgets and most divisions would need to look at furloughs or lay-offs for school employees.

Our members sent emails, made calls, and told their stories to legislators, and we were heard. The conference budget includes full hold harmless language for the 2020-2021 school year. Keep in mind the original Senate budget did not include that language. The Senate also killed a bill that would have held school divisions harmless because they saw it as an issue for the Regular Session in January. Our members changed the minds of the Senate! We must thank the House leadership and especially the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Delegate Luke Torian, for understanding the need for this budget item and fighting for it to be included in the conference report.

The second item I looked for was the $95.2 million we asked for to fill holes left by reduced sales tax revenues for public schools. Again, the House led this fight with Delegate Cliff Hayes including a budget amendment to fill the hole. He was the only member of the House or Senate to fight for this fix from the very beginning. He understood the need and he proposed a solution. Both the House and Senate included the money in their budgets, and we are very glad to see that the conference budget keeps the allocation in place. Again, our members called, emailed, and reached out to their legislators to let them know the potential impact on the CURRENT YEAR budget without this help. We were heard. This action, along with the ADM language, will protect jobs and ensure that we maintain the educational capacity in our public schools to bring students back to our school buildings once it is safe to do so.

Sadly, we are now at a place where we needed to triage the most threatening wounds to our current budgets. We won that battle, but the victory our public schools need is still ahead. We have not recovered from the devastating cuts left over from the 2009 recession and now we are facing another economic downturn without a clear end in sight. Virginia cannot allow our public schools to be the last to recover. This crisis has shown everyone the economic driver our public schools are. It has also laid bare the inequities that exist across the Commonwealth and between neighborhoods. The pandemic has exposed for all to see the impact of our delays in closing the digital divide, our lack of systemic support for our at-risk students who live in poverty,  the impact on our Special Education students when their IEPs aren’t met or staffed, the lack of sufficient school staff to support the mental health and safety of our students, the role our schools play in feeding students, and the role our public schools play in supporting working parents and families.

While the pandemic has shown us how far we need to go, there is a path to follow. For the last five years the Virginia Board of Education has issued and prescribed revisions to the Standards of Quality that are focused on equity of opportunity and equity of services. It is well past time for the General Assembly to do more than what we have seen each session in each of these years—agreement in principle but not in dollars. “We would if we could, but we can’t” is not an acceptable plan. Instead the General Assembly needs to prioritize our public schools and follow the clear path the Board has laid out. You don’t need to leave breadcrumbs; the path is completely mapped out—adopt and fully fund the revisions to the Standards of Quality as prescribed by the Board of Education. Yes, it is expensive, but our public schools have been waiting for more than a decade, and they have been underfunded every single year of that decade. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our public schools, on our kids, and on our families should be all the evidence that is needed to make our public schools Virginia’s number one priority. It is well past time.

Friday, October 2, 2020

VEA’s COVID-19 Transparency Bill Passes and Will Make a Difference!

 Today SB5083 took its final step in becoming law, approved by the Senate after earlier unanimous passage in the House. little hurdle in the House, we were able to get a clarifying amendment added to the bill, and the Senate accepted it today.  

The bill, carried by Senator Jennifer McClellan, requires each school board to post—in a publicly accessible and conspicuous location on its website—its plan for mitigating the spread and public health risk of the COVID-19 virus, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Virginia Department of Health recommendations. 

 

Before returning to instruction, each school division was required to develop a COVID-19 health and safety plan and submit it to the Virginia Department of Education. The issue was that there was no requirement to post the plans where any employee or parent could access it. While many school divisions did post the plans, many did not. Now they must. Our bill has an emergency clause which means that plans must be posted as soon as Governor Northam signs the bill, which is expected quickly. 

 

The VEA is grateful to Senator McClellan for getting this bill through with the votes needed to pass it with the emergency enactment. We are also grateful to Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy who patroned the House version of the bill. Like Senator McClellan, Delegate Carroll Foy chose this bill as one of only three she could submit during the Special Session. We are grateful to her for her willingness to fight for this issue. Unfortunately, the House bill was assigned to the House Education Committee, which never met, so the bill never got out of the gate. We are glad we had a Senate bill as the vehicle.  

 

So why is this bill important? Because our members will now know what plans their school divisions put in place to keep them and their students safe. Our members can now hold their divisions accountable for the contents of the plan. Also, if there is something that should be in the plan that isn’t there, our members should advocate for revisions.  

 

Additionally, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Health and Safety Codes Board included school employees in their COVID-19 Safety Standard. School employees are identified as a medium level exposure risk. In the standard they offer the following language:  

A public school division or private school that submits its plans to the Virginia Department of Education to move to Phase II and Phase III that are aligned with CDC guidance for reopening of schools that provide equivalent or greater levels of employee protection than a provision of this standard and who operate in compliance with the public school division’s or private school’s submitted plans shall be considered in compliance with this standard.” 

 

Without a requirement that these plans are made public, school employees could not be certain what is contained in these plans or if their school is incompliance with the plan as required by the Safety Standard.  

 

After the governor signs the bill, be sure to visit your school division’s website and read your local plan. Know what is in it and advocate for anything that is not. Contact the VEA if you need any assistance. 

 

 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Special Session Budgets are Here. Senators Still Need Our Pressure

September 25, 2020

Your pressure helped win $95 million for K-12 education to protect local school divisions from sales tax revenue losses, and the opportunity to win Hold Harmless language in the budget to deal with enrollment losses remains on the table as the money committees prepare for their final negotiations.

That’s the skinny from the release today by the House and Senate of their respective budget documents.

Here’s the background.

The General Assembly Money Committees met today to present their amendments to the 2020-2022 Biennial Budget that was adopted on March 12. These amendments address COVID-19 response and funding to implement legislation that will pass during Special Session. As you may recall, the 2020-2022 Biennial budget included just over $490 million in new state funding for our public schools. You may also recall that on March 13, the day after the budget was adopted, schools began to go to all-virtual because of COVID-19. By the time the General Assembly reconvened in April, the economic crisis made dramatic budget action necessary and they unallotted nearly all that new funding. 

Governor Northam called the General Assembly back for a Special Session in August to take up the budget, COVID response, and police reform. While we began our work urging the General Assembly to restore the $490 million, we quickly saw there were two huge issues that would put significant holes in current school year budgets in every single school division in the Commonwealth: lost sales tax revenues and reduced enrollment because of the virus. While the VEA continued to pressure House and Senate leadership on the unallotted spending, we also did everything possible to fill these huge holes and protect our members from furloughs and layoffs. 

We needed a state allocation of $95.2 million dollars for Sales Tax Losses and we needed language only to protect current funding levels from cuts due to lower enrollments this fall. ADM is Average Daily Membership, and the state uses these figures for their per-pupil payments to local schools. As the September numbers came in, we saw the possibility of up to $150-160 million in lost state support. That would be devastating to almost every division. 

Today our work paid off in the House, as they included exactly the amendments to their budgets that we requested: 

Education FY20-21 FY21-22
Direct Aid to Public Education $95,227,730 
Language:
Hold Harmless Sales Tax $95,227,730
Page 66, after line 25 insert:
e.1) This item includes an appropriation estimated at $95,227,730 in the first year from the revenues generated by the provisions of Chapters 1217 and 1277, 2020 Acts of Assembly, to be paid to local school divisions as a hold harmless payment dedicated to public education. Local governing bodies shall appropriate these funds to the local school divisions in the same manner in which they appropriate sales tax revenues dedicated to public education.

Education
Direct Aid to Public Education Language
Language:
Page 47, after line 19, insert:
"30. The Department of Education shall not reduce semi-monthly payments to school divisions due to mid-year adjustments to ADM projections in the first year. Semi-monthly payments occurring after the final calculation of March 31 ADM shall be adjusted to address changes in membership that occur throughout the school year."
Explanation:
(This amendment delays reductions to state payments resulting from reduced ADM projections until after the final March 31 ADM is calculated. Normally, state payments to school divisions are adjusted in January to reflect revised ADM projections, which are based in part on September 30 membership counts. This amendment would prevent school divisions from experiencing any reductions in state payments until after the General Assembly convenes for the 2021 Regular Session.) 

Senate Needs Push

The Senate included one-time sales tax money but failed to include the language to protect funding related to lost enrollment. There are many members of the Senate who think this issue can wait until the regular session begins in January, so they did not include it. That is where our work must turn. We need to educate them on the potential impact if the language is not included. We should be able to make this happen in budget conference, as the language costs no money. Be on the lookout for an action alert from us very soon. 

The VEA is grateful to our partners at VASS and the VA Association of Counties (VACo) for their work on getting the data we needed to present a clear and concise message to our members and to the members of the General Assembly. Our members lifted these issues up to their own legislators and to the leadership of the money committees. Our members called, emailed, shared social media, and texted. They kept this issue on the front burner and then turned up the heat. This was a grassroots effort and it paid off. I must also mention House leadership. They were very responsive. Elections matter. 

While I am relieved today that we were able to fill most of these massive holes, the budget officially cuts nearly all the new spending we worked so hard for last session. There is much work to do. Today, though, we are on the path to save jobs and protect our members from furloughs, and we learned that that the House of Delegates will stand with us in a crisis. As we one day move forward from this pandemic, we need the entire General Assembly to always stand with us—in words, actions, AND budget votes. 

Now all attention turns to getting the Senate budget conferees to add the ADM language. We need that.





Thursday, September 17, 2020

School Health Plan Bill Moves Forward, Might There Be a Budget Soon?

September 17, 2020

Today Senate Bill 5083, which Senator McClellan carried on our behalf, cleared another hurdle. It passed in the House Health, Welfare, and Institutions Committee on a unanimous 22-0 vote. It passed the Senate unanimously, which is good as the bill has an emergency clause meaning it will become law immediately upon passage. Bills with this clause must pass with 80 percent votes in both bodies. Today’s unanimous vote is a good sign that the bill will clear the 80 percent hurdle in the House and become immediately effective.

The bill requires that all school divisions in the Commonwealth post their COVID-19 Health and Safety plan to an easily accessible spot on their web site. All school divisions were required to submit plans to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) ahead of the start of the new school year. One was their instructional plan, the other was their health and safety plan. The health plan was required by an order of the VA Health Commissioner and, because of that, the VDOE did not have the authority to compel all school divisions to post those plans. SB 5083 ensures that these plans are readily available for review by parents and school employees. As we all work together to make sure our students, teachers, and communities stay safe, information is the best thing we can offer. So it’s a significant help..

The bill moves to the House floor and, if it passes with 80 percent support, it will become law immediately.

During the debate on the bill today, Delegate Marcia Price brought up an important consideration. While the bill requires the plans to be posted to the division website, not all families have reliable internet or access to a computer. If we desire to make sure all parents have access to the information, we should advocate for local outreach programs for these families. No one should have to worry about the health and safety of their child when they send them off to school. While our bill is a good bill, we still have work to do to support all families. This is a great question to ask your school board and superintendent -- what steps are being taken to make sure all families have access to the division’s health and safety plan as well as to the instructional plans?

A huge thank you to Senator McClellan for being a champion on this issue. We also need to thank Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy who patroned the same bill for us in the House, but the oddities of Special Session had that bill assigned to a committee that is not meeting. She should also get credit for her willingness to stand with us on this.

On Friday, Special Session will be 30 days old. A regular short session is only 45. Rumor on the street is that we are getting close to the end of Special Session and we may see a budget as early as next week. As you have been alerted, there are real concerns about the economic downturn and the impact those revenue losses will have on K-12 funding. The VEA is pushing the money committees to adopt Delegate Hayes’ budget amendment to add $95.2 million in state funding to offset the loss of sales tax revenues. If you have not taken action yet, click here to send a message to Chairman Torian in the House and Chairwoman Howell in the Senate.

The other funding issue causing deep concern is the decrease in enrollment many school divisions are reporting this fall. State funding for K-12 comes on a per-pupil basis, so if you have fewer students, you get fewer state dollars. Because of COVID-19, most school divisions are experiencing declining enrollment as parents chose homeschooling or private schools. We expect many of those students to come back to public school once the crisis is over, but if divisions lose substantial state funding this school year, most will have to make cuts. We know that 80-85% of most school division budgets are in personnel costs. That means these cuts will likely result in furloughs and layoffs. That’s why the VEA is working in collaboration with all the education and local government groups to pressure legislators to add “hold harmless” language to the budget they adopt during the special session. This language would simply say that no school division will receive less state funding then they did in SY2019-2020. Many legislators think we can take care of this during the regular session that starts in January, but we are working hard to put this safety net in place now. More to come in the days ahead! Like the sales tax, it is a wonky issue to explain to the general public and to legislators, but there is a very unified push from all our K-12 partners on this as well as the local government groups. I feel good that we will be able to resolve this in the next few days, but, for now, this is where the focus is.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Paid Sick Days Moves Forward in the House, Sales Tax Revenue Problem Must Be Addressed

 August 26, 2020

Wednesday the House Committee on Labor and Commerce advanced Delegate Elizabeth Guzman’s Paid Sick Days bill (HB5116) on a 13-9 party line vote. The VEA is part of the Virginian’s for Paid Sick Days Coalition fighting to pass legislation to require all workers to have paid time off when they or a family member is sick. Today the House Democrats stood with workers once again when they passed this bill.

As VEA President James Fedderman said, “VEA members know that without access to paid sick days, many parents are left with no option when their children get sick. Educators often work with students who have come to school sick because their parent had to make an impossible choice—lose vital wages (and possibly their job) to stay home with their child, or send them to school in spite of the illness. It is well past time to give all working parents the peace of mind of paid sick days. If we want to keep our communities and our schools healthy, the General Assembly must pass paid sick leave for all workers.”

This legislation is very narrow and sunsets (ends) when the state of emergency related to COVID-19 expires, but it is a huge step forward in making Virginia a better place for workers.

Still, the bill faces a challenge in the Senate where the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor killed the bill last week. The VEA applauds Delegate Guzman and the entire House Democratic Caucus for standing with workers who are literally facing life and death decisions during this pandemic. More on the Virginians for Paid Sick Days coalition here.

In other news, please make sure to send an email to your legislators to let them know about the impact the sales tax revenue shortfall will have on every school division in Virginia. This is a huge, unexpected cut to the school budgets for the upcoming school year. No school division was prepared for this cut and none of them can absorb the cuts especially as they face all the challenges of returning to instruction in the face of a global pandemic and state of emergency. Click here to act now. .

A Deeper Dive

I know this is a complicated issue, so I wanted to see how I could make it easier to digest. I am grateful to my team at the VEA with their help on this. You all know I like a food analogy. Think of the entire costs of the SOQ programs (we call those, in general, Direct Aid to Public Education) as a pie. The state determines how much the whole pie costs. By law, a portion of all sales taxes collected in VA go towards that price tag. After the sales tax revenues are applied to the cost of the Direct Aid pie (in green below), the state shares the responsibility of paying for the rest of the costs with the local governments (blue part of the pie). The state pays 55% of the remaining cost after the sales taxes are applied, and the localities pay 45%.

Schools built and adopted their 2020-2021 school year budgets based on these figures. Unfortunately, sales tax collections are down. By law, because revenues overall are down, the budget must be reset or reforecasted to reflect these losses. One of the big areas of lost revenue is in sales tax collection. When there is less sales tax money, there is less to apply to the Direct Aid pie. When that happens, more of the costs of the Direct Aid pie falls to the state and localities to pick up. Remember they do that at a 55/45 split. So, funding that school divisions thought was coming to them as the green part of the pie is now coming as the blue part of the pie. Instead the state will pick up only 55% of the costs. Here is a graphic to show you what I mean:







We are getting less of the green, so more of the pie will be blue (split costs). To fix this we need a one-time state investment of just over $95 million to fill the whole left by the tax revenue losses. If legislators do not adopt this budget amendment, every single school division in Virginia will be facing cuts. Period. There is no way around it.

Act NOW and tell your legislators to support Delegate Cliff Hayes budget amendment 145 #6h to hold our public schools harmless from the lost tax revenues. Click here to send your email.