Wednesday, January 16, 2019

School Safety Bills and A VEA Bill Faces Its First Test

This morning the House Education Committee took up the recommendations from the House Select Committee on School Safety. The VEA is encouraged by many of the recommendations from the committee. We are especially grateful for the focus on increasing school counselor's ability to work directly with  students rather than being assigned many of the responsibilities on test administration and data. Here's the rub. Just saying that school counselors should be relieved of those other responsibilities without providing any additional staff or state funding to hire either more counselors or more support staff to take on some of those other responsibilities is an unfunded mandate. The work will still exist and that means someone will need to take it on. Should that be the school administrators who are already overburdened and unable to be real instructional leaders because of the paper-pushing they are required to do? Should it fall on the teachers who are already stretched beyond their limits? Should these responsibilities simply fall into the "other duties as assigned" and everyone can just try to figure it out? None of these is OK with the VEA. If the General Assembly wants to change the roles of school counselors so that students mental health needs are met, they need to fund additional positions or lift the support staff cap so that state dollars for the support positions we need are funded with state dollars. Delegate Landes' legislation that increases the percentage of time that school counselors spend on true counseling is very well intended and we are grateful to him for highlighting this issue, but the state's idea that this change is "free" is ridiculous. There must be state dollars that follow this change. His bill was referred to Appropriations for review, but we are concerned that it will pass without any additional state dollars to support its implementation.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education had its first meeting this afternoon. House Bill 2144, VEA initiated legislation that came from a New Business Item at our 2018 Convention, was heard. HB2144, carried by VEA member and teacher, Delegate Chery Turpin would reestablish the Duty Free Lunch Incentive Grant. This grant would make limited state funding available for school divisions that wanted to provide duty free lunches to their teaching staff. Currently there is no federal or state requirement that teachers have a duty free lunch. The incentive fund was established in 1950 and funded until the 1990s. At that time, school divisions were required to report the extent to which they were providing duty free lunches to their teachers. When the reporting requirement was there, more divisions were providing that time during the day. The fund was repealed in 2011 and the reporting requirement also went away.

In 2017, the VEA asked school divisions what their polices were on duty-free lunches. Most reported they did their best to provide them as often as possible. Ours was a soft ask since there is no state report, so the data was what it was. We know that fewer teachers are getting a break to have even a 15 minute lunch. We are grateful to Delegate Turpin for carrying this legislation. In good news, as we traveled the state talking about this bill, we heard from some of our hourly ESPs who were not getting an unencumbered break for lunch. Hourly employees are on a different category depending on how may hours they work. We were able to connect some of our ESPs with their UniServ Directors to help resolve those issues. The more we talk, the more we learn.

In good news,  the members of the sub committee were very responsive to our bill. While the bill was laid on table, that is actually a good outcome on a bill that needs to be funded. The members of the committee can "pick the bill up" off the table once the budget is drafted. I will tell you anything that isn't a kill in that committee is a good outcome. Delegates Peace, Landes, and John Bell asked great questions and engaged on the issue. They also asked about any data the state had on teacher morale. Delegate Peace asked specifically about the school personnel climate survey that the VEA proposed last year and, while not funded, was still required to be implemented. It allowed us to make a case for state funding for a more deep dive into issues. So two birds with one stone on that one. A good day for a good bill that was initiated by your VEA Convention delegates! We will have to see how the budget talks progress, but Delegate Turpin and I were pleased with the outcome in sub committee today.