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. 

 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Sales Tax Issue Would Hit Localities Hard; Send Our Action Alert Now

Daily Report August 25, 2020

The Governor introduced a revised 2020-2022 Biennial Budget in response to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. This budget cuts most of the new spending that was unalloted just a few months ago. For our public schools, this included the nearly $490 million of new spending over the biennium. The Governor was clear that there will be an opportunity to make changes again during the regular General Assembly session in January if the economy picks up, but revenue shortfalls made these difficult decisions necessary.

The VEA believes there are ways to make additional investments in K-12 even when we face the current economic crisis. In fact, we know that for schools to open safely and with equity, they need additional funding to offset the costs of providing equitable virtual instruction or safe in-person instruction. Both options in the age of COVID force difficult decisions for this General Assembly. The VEA believes these investments must be made.

The House of Delegates members have posted their budget amendments to the revised budget introduced by the Governor. We appreciate the amendment by Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy to unallot all the nearly $490 million the new K-12 spending including funding for additional school counselors. She is the only member of the House to introduce an amendment to reverse the cuts proposed by the Governor. We are also grateful to see Delegate Kaye Kory’s effort to redirect $4.7 million each year of state support for School Resource Officers to school mental health professionals. Her amendment does nothing to stop any school division from deploying SROs in their schools, it simply shifts state funding to our public schools for mental health professionals.

Since the Governor introduced his revised budget, a new, universally impactful issue has come up for our public schools. The significant reduction in sales has resulted in more of the overall cost of funding the SOQs to be paid by the state and locality rather than by sales taxes. Those costs covered by sales tax now go into the larger pot of K-12 direct aid and are funded at the state/local split of 55% state/45% locality. The issue here is that local school divisions build budgets for the 2020-2021 school based on tax revenues that are now not coming in, and instead they are responsible for 45% of the cost of those programs. This is wholly unexpected, and school divisions are facing significant shortfalls in their current year budgets without state support to offset the losses. These losses are estimated to be $95.2 million in the first year of the biennium and $93.6 million in the second. Delegate Cliff Hayes has a budget amendment to cover the losses for the first year. His amendment does not cover the second year as that will need to be evaluated during the regular January session. The VEA intends to work hard to support this budget amendment.

VEA just activated an Action Alert on the state budget to address the sales tax issue and protect funding for local school divisions. Please act now by sending an email to your legislator.  

 

Monday, August 24, 2020

State Support to Vote Safely and Adding Juneteenth as a State Holiday

 

Daily Report -- August 24, 2020

State Support to Vote Safely and Adding Juneteenth as a State Holiday

Today the General Assembly money committees took up bills to specify how Virginia will handle absentee ballots this Election Day. As you may know, during the regular session the General Assembly passed no-excuse absentee voting. That law became effective July 1 and, because of the health and safety concerns related to COVID-19, Virginia is preparing for a very large increase in the numbers of people that request an absentee ballot for the General Election on November 3. This issue is making national news, and there has been much dialog about the safety of mail-in ballots.

Today the money committees took steps to protect both voters and our democratic process. SB5120 from Senator Howell and the identical HB5103 from Delegate Sickles passed on party-line votes—all Democrats voted yes; all Republicans voted no. These bills lay out commonsense steps that the VEA supported to make absentee voting as easy and safe as possible.

The bills clarify how ballots will be certified by each general registrar, including how a voter will be notified if there are any issues with their ballot. The bills also allow voters to make corrections to errors on their ballot and to omit the witness signature on their ballot without penalty of the ballot being invalidated. The bills also require the placement of ballot drop-off locations at the general registrar office and each voter satellite office. On the day of the election, there shall also be an accessible drop-off location at each polling place in operation for the election. All drop-off locations shall include necessary security requirements. Additionally, the bills set aside $2 million for pre-paid return envelopes for all absentee ballots. This is another important measure that the VEA supports. We believe that all citizens should be able to vote easily, even when there is a public health crisis. We supported efforts to expand access to absentee ballots during the regular session and we are happy to see these bills move forward.

In another important move, HB5052 from Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, unanimously reported from the Committee on General Laws. This bill codifies the Executive Order signed by Governor Northam to make Juneteenth a State Holiday. During testimony on the bill, Delegate Marcia Price urged anyone who cannot knowledgeably explain why Juneteenth should be a state holiday, to learn about it.  As someone who went to Virginia public schools for all but 1 year of my K-12 education, I was never taught about Juneteenth. There is no better example of the whitewashing of our history then that. When you know better, you do better. I encourage all of you to listen to Delegate Price and do better. If you don’t know about Juneteenth, please learn about it here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

VEA-Initiated Bill on COVID Transparency Passes Unanimously

Special Session -- August 19, 2020

The Senate has gotten off to a quick start this Special Session. This morning, under the efficient leadership of the Chair, Senator Louise Lucas, the Senate Education and Health Committee heard 22 bills. One of them, Senate Bill 5083, was initiated by the VEA and patroned by Senator Jennifer McClellan and Senator Ghazala Hashmi.

Through orders by the Governor, all public schools in the Commonwealth are required to submit a plan to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) outlining the provision of new instruction to all students in the 2020-2021 academic year, regardless of phase or the operational status of the school at the time. Additionally, per an Order of Public Health Emergency from the State Health Commissioner, all public and private schools are required to submit to the VDOE a plan outlining their strategies for mitigating public health risk of COVID-19. The VDOE has the authority to require the local school divisions to post their instructional plans on the division’s web site so that the plans are publicly available. However, because the requirement that schools submit a health and safety plan came from an order of the Health Commissioner, the Department of Education does not have that same authority for the school health and safety plans. While many school divisions will likely post their health and safety plans, they are not currently required to do that. SB5083 fixes that problem.

SB5083 requires all public schools to post their heath and safety plans where they are easily accessible on the division’s web site. These plans require the school divisions to lay out their policies on face coverings, social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing procedures, screening of students and staff, and isolation procedures. The VEA thinks it is important for school employees and parents to be able to review these plans, and SB5083 will make sure there is full transparency. In more good news, SB5083 passed the full committee unanimously, which is a good sign that we will meet the 4/5 vote to keep the emergency clause. If a bill passes with the emergency clause, it becomes effective upon passage. Obviously, we have schools that are already back in session, so getting these plans posted is a time-sensitive issue.

On another note, the VEA appreciates Senator Dick Saslaw for very quickly making a motion to kill Senator Amanda Chase’s voucher bill. For some reason, Senator Chase seems to believe that if any public school doesn’t open for full-time instruction, schools should send all of the state funding for each student to the parents to use for childcare. Defunding our public schools during a pandemic is atrocious. Period.  The end.

There were other interesting bills that came to the Senate Education and Health today:

SB5004 from Senator Kiggins would require that every school in the Commonwealth employ a Registered Nurse. This has been a top priority for the VEA for years, so we were happy to see this bill pass through the committee, but it was referred to the money committee where its fate doesn’t look good.

SB5068 from Senator Peake allows any school board to waive the required student health screenings and safety drills that are currently required by law. During the pandemic, these requirements become difficult to impossible, so this is a good bill. It also passes unanimously and has the emergency clause.

SB5069 from Senator Ruff will protect schools from losing per-pupil funding by allowing the use of the Average Daily Membership (ADM) numbers from the highest watermark during the state of emergency. This bill will ensure that lower enrollment numbers now won’t result in an even bigger hole in school budgets next school year.

SB5094 from Senator Dunnavant requires each school board to provide to each teacher in the local school division up to 14 days of paid leave, in addition to any other paid leave to which such individual is otherwise entitled, that may be used in the event that the teacher has or has been exposed to COVID-19. The bill passed nearly unanimously with a referral to the money committee. It will have a tough time there, honestly.

SB5100 also from Senator Dunnavant would provide excused absences for students diagnosed with COVID-19 or who live in a household with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. This bill also passed today.

The budget is still up in the air. Send your legislator an email RIGHT NOW to maximize K-12 funding.

Later today the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor will meet where we will see worker’s compensation bills and the Paid Sick Days bill that the VEA supports. The committee meeting will go late, so I will report on that one tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Special Session Begins, We Must Press K-12 Funding

Special Session
August 18, 2020

Governor Ralph Northam has called the General Assembly back to session starting today. His order calling them back is for three specific purposes: review and amend the 2020-2022 Biennial Budget, COVID-19 response, and police reform. We would expect to see legislation only in those areas. While each member of the VA House and Senate have a three-bill limit, that could still result in over 400 bills. As of this afternoon, there are only about 65 bills filed, although I know many more are coming. 

The VEA has been very clear on our priorities as it relates to budget. Our members have been sending emails to their legislators urging specific budget action. That action includes:

  • Maximizing all federal dollars for K-12. These resources must be invested in the essential services our students and schools need regardless of a virtual or in-person reopening.
  • Restoring the nearly $500 million in new K-12 funding that was unalloted during the Reconvene Session.
  • Using all available state resources to protect all K-12 spending.
  • Maintaining the full funding of rebenchmarking.
  • Providing up to $600 million in emergency flexible funding to support the unique needs associated with reopening during a pandemic. Some of these needs include:
  • Up to $270 million for substitute teachers. 
  • Procurement of PPE and other health and safety supplies for all school divisions.
  • Broadband access initiatives and resources to close the digital divide. 

This morning, the Secretary of Finance and the Governor delivered the news we were dreading -- nearly all the unallotted dollars will be cut. These are all the unallotted funds, not just the funds for K-12.

It is time to make your voice heard and contact your legislator NOW. Click here to send your email. The money committees are getting to work now on the budget. Make sure they know they must prioritize K-12!

Aside from budget action, the VEA has initiated legislation to require each school division to post their COVID-19 heath and safety plan on their web site. Per an order from Virginia’s Health Commissioner, all schools, public and private, are required to submit these plans to the VA Department of Education. However, the DOE cannot require the plans be posted publicly. The VEA believes that to ensure a safe return to school, parents and educators must know what is contained in these plans. According to the order, these plans must include policies and procedures for the use of face coverings; health screenings of staff and students; physical distancing measures; enhanced hygiene practices for staff and students; isolation of symptomatic cases; cleaning and disinfecting procedures and other topics as outlined in the Phased Guidance for Virginia Schools. No school should open if these plans are not made public. The VEA is grateful to our patrons. Senator Jennifer McClellan will carry our bill in the Senate, Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy in the House. More to come as these bills progress. 

This session the VEA will also be working with the Virginians for Paid Sick Days Coalition to make sure all workers have at least 40 hours of paid sick leave a year. We are fortunate as school employees that this is a benefit we already enjoy, but so many of the families we serve do not have this benefit. As VEA President James J. Fedderman said during the Coalition press conference on Monday, “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.” Click here to learn more about the Coalition's work.

We expect that Special Session may last a few weeks because of how session will work- virtual committee meetings and in-person floor sessions. We will keep you updated as session continues. 


Thursday, April 23, 2020

A Historic Reconvened Session in Virginia


Daily Report- April 22, 2020

The sixth Wednesday after adjournment is when the General Assembly reconvenes to act on any recommendations made to any bill by the Governor, including action on any bill that the Governor vetoes. The General Assembly adjourned sine die on March 12. The very next day the COVID-19 closures started across the Commonwealth. Normally there is a quiet time in the weeks between the end of session and the reconvened session. That has certainly not the case this year. The COVID-19 pandemic and State of Emergency here in Virginia have wreaked havoc on some of the legislation the General Assembly passed and certainly on the budget that they adopted on March 12.

While we had a very successful legislative session with many of our priority bills passing and being signed by the Governor, a few of our top priority bills, including our Collective Bargaining bill, had recommendations from the Governor and were up for consideration today. Usually, the House and Senate would convene in their regular chambers and the business of the day would proceed as normal. We are no longer in normal times.

The 40 members of the VA Senate convened in a significantly larger space at the Science Museum so that they could maintain social distancing. They worked with “technology” that included a bell to alert them that the voting rolls were open. They had on masks and gloves and, this germaphobe noted, a bottle of hand sanitizer at each desk. Senator Barker, who recently had surgery, worked from behind a plexiglass series of panels in what was termed the “Barker Box”. The box was something to see, but how did they get all those bottles of hand sanitizer?

Social distancing in the VA House is far more difficult as there are 100 members plus the staff who need to be on hand. The solution was to meet under a large tent on the grounds right outside the House Chamber. Each member of the House had their own table, masks, and gloves. While it was a beautiful day in Richmond, it was very windy, and some legislators struggled with their papers while discussing bills and amendments. The day started with a half-hour delay as there were technical problems with the voting boards. Those problems were much like lights on a Christmas tree. If any single plug was loose on any cord, they all went out.

Nothing normal about today.

Since the 2020-2022 biennial budget was adopted on March 12, our economy has completely turned upside down. Thousands of Virginians are newly unemployed, our revenues are down, and our economic future is uncertain. The budget that was adopted was built on revenue forecasts that are very different from what we expect just six weeks later, and the Governor decided to freeze all new spending until additional revenue forecasts are available and they demonstrate a recovery. The K-12 budget was treated just as all the others in general. All new spending was frozen. Sadly, this included many of the items the VEA fought for this session and over the last few sessions. In some good news, the Governor does fund the full rebenchmarking costs, and that is a big deal. Our school divisions are facing enormous budget shortfalls. Had the rebenchmarking money not been funded, the holes would have been even bigger.

So, what happened today? As expected, and as the Labor Coalition discussed with leadership, the General Assembly accepted the Governor’s recommendations to delay both the minimum wage bill and the collective bargaining bill until May 1, 2021. Now that the delay was accepted, we expect the Governor to sign both bills. Period. No exception. I have also had significant conversations with leadership in both the VA House and Senate about my concern that there will be another session of the General Assembly and I fear the newly signed bills could be changed before they are ever enacted. I believe the House leadership when she tells me that any attempt to do that is dead on arrival in the House. The House stood firmly with workers from the get-go this session, passing the far broader language originally in HB582 and again when they conformed SB939 to the broader bill and passed it a second time. In the Senate I have the same assurances that any effort to water down the already water-downed version of the bill is dead in the Senate. I told leadership that we intend to hold him to that.

These bills now go back to the Governor to sign. Then they become law.

Then there is the budget. The General Assembly acted on both the Caboose budget (to finish up the current fiscal year that runs through June 30) and the 2020-2022 Biennial budget.

In the Caboose budget, the big change for K-12 was the adoption of the language that grants authority to the State Superintendent of Instruction to waive sections of the Code of Virginia in response to the COVID-19 school closures. Here is the amendment:

The Superintendent of Public Instruction may grant temporary flexibility or issue waivers of certain deadlines and requirements that cannot be met due to the state of emergency or school closures resulting from Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Such flexibility or waivers may include, but are not limited to, accreditation, testing and assessments, graduation, licensure, including temporary licensure, school calendars, and program applications and reports due to the Department of Education or Board of Education. Such authority only applies to deadlines and requirements for fiscal year 2020 (school year 2019-2020) or fiscal year 2021 (school year 2020-2021). Prior to granting any flexibility or waivers pursuant to this language, the Superintendent of Public Instruction must report to the Secretary of Education and substantiate how the state of emergency or school closures resulting from COVID-19 impacted each deadline or requirement, the proposed alternative, and the affected fiscal and school years. Subsequently, information about waivers or flexibility extended shall be reported to the Board of Education and made available on the agency website.”

As you can read, the General Assembly adopting this budget amendment is another step forward on many of the requirements (licensure, graduation, testing, calendar, and make-up days) that many educators have been asking about. The VA DOE will very quickly report to the Secretary of Education and the VA Board of Education. So, there is still another step, but we are nearing the end of all the authorizations we need to officially answer the questions so many of you have raised. The same amendment is in the first year of the biennial budget in case the COVID-19 crisis and school closures go beyond June 30 and we need any waivers for the 2020-2021 school year. While it is a concerning realization that we may still be dealing with all this as we start the next school year, it is good to know the waivers are there if we need them.

In the 2020-2022 Biennial budget, the General Assembly acted to unallot, which means put on hold, almost all new funding that was included in the budget adopted on March 12. This is heartbreaking given how much work we put into finally rebounding from the 2008 recession. It took 12 years just to get our schools back to the 2008 levels. We will work hard to make sure that all Federal dollars are maximized and that when spending is restored, it is restored to our public schools first.

Here is the list of the new K-12 funding that was unallotted today. The first column is for FY2021, the second for FY22.

Alleghany-Covington consolidation
$0
$582,000
Support the Western Virginia Public Education Consortium
$50,000
$50,000
Maximize pre-kindergarten access for at-risk three- and four-year-old children
$35,027,435
$48,436,297
Recruit and retain early childhood educators
$3,000,000
$5,000,000
Support African American history education
$1,300,000
$0
Support history education through the American Civil War Museum
$1,000,000
$0
Provide no loss funding to localities
$1,776,174
$1,973,585
Expand access to school meals
$5,300,000
$5,300,000
Increase salaries for funded Standards of Quality instructional and support positions
$94,731,247
$192,502,898
Increase support for at-risk students
$26,164,313
$35,173,962
Increase support for Communities in Schools
$760,000
$760,000
Increase support for Jobs for Virginia Graduates
$1,670,000
$1,670,000
Enrollment loss
$2,540,119
$2,102,530
Chesterfield Recovery High School
$250,000
$250,000
YMCA Power Scholars Academies
$450,000
$450,000
Brooks Crossing Innovation and Opportunity Center
$250,000
$250,000
Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center
$250,000
$0
Literacy Lab - VPI Minority Educator Fellowship
$300,000
$0
Soundscapes - Newport News
$90,000
$0
Cost of Competing Adjustment
$9,555,229
$9,968,849
Active Learning grants
$250,000
$0
Blue Ridge PBS
$500,000
$500,000
Bonder and Amanda Johnson Community Development Corporation
$100,000
$0
Agency Total
$185,314,517
$304,970,121

Explanation:
(This amendment unallot increases in discretionary spending amounts pending the assessment of the impact of a potential general fund revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Also, the General Assembly approved the Governor’s recommendation to cut funding for additional school counselors. This is another very difficult thing to report. The VEA worked so hard with the VA School Counselors Association and the legislators who were committed to improving the mental health support of our students to pass this important legislation. My heart is truly heavy reporting his news. The good news is that the legislation that improves our school counselor ratios is still in the Code of VA and the changes made today only exist in the budget and can easily be reversed. Do not get me wrong, we know all about budget language being used for cost savings and then remaining in future budgets. The support staff cap is the perfect example of that. We will fight to fully fund the ratios established in the Codified Standards of Quality and make sure our students have the mental health support they need. It makes no sense to cut this kind of support when so many of our students need this help now more than ever.

I anticipate the Governor will call the General Assembly back for a Special Session once we have revenue forecasts that reflect the real impacts of COVID-19 on our economy. I am hopeful that we will see some good news, but I am very concerned that at the Special Session there will be actual cuts versus “unalloting” funds. We must be ready to stand up for our public schools and make sure the Governor and the General Assembly maximize the Federal funding, maximize our reserve funds, and restore K-12 first. Our public schools cannot be last again. We waited more than a decade to “rebound” after the 2008 recession. During that time we have seen the teacher shortage reach a crisis level, a rapid increase in the number of our students who are living in poverty, staggering increases in special education and other health needs for our students, school buildings literally crumbling, and educators more stretched than ever before. All the while Virginia pays our teachers $8500 less than the National average. We must prioritize our public schools. We must prioritize the educators and school employees who are on the front lines keeping our students educated and fed. We must prioritize our kids. We will not wait another decade to “recover” to 2008 spending levels. We will not.