Friday, February 14, 2020

Small and Rural School Divisions Make Their Case

February 13, 2020

Today the Coalition of Small and Rural School Divisions held a press conference to highlight the needs of the small divisions in Virginia. As I have been telling our members, small and rural school divisions aren’t limited to the far Southwest. In fact, 76 of the 132 school divisions in Virginia belong to the coalition. We have small and rural school divisions up and down the Shenandoah Valley, in Southside VA, in Tidewater, and on the Northern Neck. Virginia must look at funding methodologies that support the unique needs of these divisions and address the issues these divisions face (as they have declining student population) while still working to offer a system of high-quality public education.

We all know that state funding for our public schools still lags the 2008 levels when adjusted for inflation. Local governments have picked up more and more of the costs to run our schools. Divisions that can do more, do just that. The small and rural divisions are far less able to fill these funding gaps, and their students pay the price. Every single local government in the Commonwealth is funding above what is required. They are doing more than their fair share, but the state continues to fund less, on a per-pupil basis, in our high-poverty districts. Today coalition representatives were here to highlight some very specific funding they would like to see the General Assembly include in the budget. Along with fully funding the Board of Education’s Equity Fund, as issued in their revised Standards of Quality, they would like to see two finding streams restored.

Since the great recession, both the enrollment loss funding and the school construction funding through the Literary Fund have been cut. Both funding streams are vital to our small and rural school divisions. We must work harder to restore this funding. The enrollment loss funding, which had provided $10 million a year prior to the recession, is vital to these small divisions as they work to maintain programs for their students. When state funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis, a loss of 50-60 students can have a significant impact on divisions. Today, the superintendent of Cumberland County Public Schools talked about her struggle to cut her budget after 40 students left the division. She had to look at cutting positions and increasing class sizes. If she did that, she would lose her K-3 class size reduction money the state provides, to she is in a lose-lose position. The General Assembly must include enrollment loss funding in the biennial budget.

Our small and rural school divisions also struggle to modernize and update their infrastructure and buildings. Just as with the enrollment loss funding, the General Assembly backed off supporting school construction costs during the recession. Virginia has a mechanism for supporting school construction, but the General Assembly has hijacked those dollars for other items. The Literary Fund was established in the VA Constitution to leverage very low-cost bonds for new schools across the Commonwealth. However, instead of building schools, the money is used to pay for school equipment and for deposit into the Virginia Retirement System for teacher retirement. School divisions no longer view the Literary Fund as a construction funding source. We need to restore the Literary Fund to its original purpose--to provide low-cost loans to school divisions to repair, modernize, and build new schools. Today the superintendent of Bristol City Public Schools talked about his schools not being accessible for students with physical disabilities. When students in Bristol break a leg, the school division must sometimes transfer the student to a different school so that they can actually go to school. It is 2020. We can do better.

This Sunday, the House and Senate money committees will announce their budgets for the 2020-2022 biennial. We must see significant funding for our most in-need divisions and students, no matter where they live. Our kids are counting on them.