Monday, March 9, 2020

We Have a Conference Budget

The General Assembly voted on Saturday to extend the session until Thursday at midnight. Part of that vote was to allow them to continue to debate bills that were in conference, but it was also because there had been a budget impasse on a few items. By late Saturday night news had come that the budget impasse was over and that the budget would be available today around noon. That is important because before the budget vote can be happen, it must be available for review by legislators and the public for 48 hours. With the budget being available today, legislators can come back on Thursday to take a final vote on the 2020-2022 biennial budget.

The conference budget amends the budget that was introduced by the Governor in December. Where the conferees added money, that is above what was included in the Governor’s budget. Where there are reductions, that is, again, from the Governor’s budget. We are still looking at numbers, but overall, the conferees made additional investments to K-12 over the Governor’s proposals. Over the next 48-72 hours, the VEA will be digging into the numbers and get out our summary along with the state support amounts by school division. For now, I wanted to share some high (and low) lights.
The conferees listened to the VEA and rejected the idea of a one-time bonus for SOQ positions. They funded a full-year 2% salary increase for all SOQ positions in both years of the biennium. I know many want more, and the VEA requested 5% in each year. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though, as you argue for salary money. These two increases extend the years of state support for salary increases to four. Each of these four years have been a full year. The last time there was a string of four years of state support for salary was 1998-2001. None of those four years was a full year of funding. So, while this is not as much as we wanted, there is a very clear indication that the General Assembly recognizes the need to sustain its efforts on salary.

The other thing to keep in mind is that any salary increase is only for the SOQ-funded positions. Salary increases for any position not indicated in the current SOQs in Code is 100% the responsibility of the local governments. Also, since school employees are not state employees, salaries are a shared responsibility between the state and the local governments. That means the local governments are responsible for their share of the salary increase for all the SOQ positions in their divisions. We must realize that until we offset the burden for so many of the costs of K-12 from the localities, many, if not most, can’t afford to give the salary increase even with the state support. The VEA will always fight for state support of salary increases, but we are short sighted if we don’t also look at ways to offset the local burden on the overall cost of K-12.

One way to do this is to implement the SOQs as issued by the VA Board of Education this fall. While the General Assembly did not adopt many (most) of the revisions, they did adopt improved staffing ratios for school counselors and teachers of English language learners. These changes will, ultimately, increase the number of positions that are now covered with the salary increase money as they are SOQ funded positions. So aside from all the good these additional teachers and counselors will do for our students, they will also offset the costs for some divisions.

The conference budget also added an additional increase to the At-Risk Add-On Funding proposed by the Governor. Again, the VEA would have liked to have seen the approach issued by the VA BOE, but in the last two budgets, there has been a significant increase in the at-risk funding. Every single school division in the Commonwealth benefits from this funding source, and it is the only direct funding we have for our students who meet the federal definition of poverty. The VEA has been fighting for increases in the At-Risk Add-On for years.

The conference budget includes enrollment-loss funding to support our small and rural school divisions. These are vital dollars that help our small divisions maintain programs as they lose students. Since VA funds K-12 on a per-pupil basis, even a loss of 10-20 students can have a significant impact on many of our divisions. Again, the VEA would have liked to have seen the pre-recession era funding levels restored, but it is important to have this funding included in the biennial budget.

The conference budget does not include significant investments in school construction, but it does increase the per-pupil allotment dollars and restores the requirement that they go back to being used for non-recurring costs. Non-recurring costs include school construction, additions, infrastructure, site acquisition, renovations, school buses, technology, and other expenditures related to modernizing classroom equipment, plus debt service payments on school projects completed during the last 10 years. This is not the big fix schools need but is a step in the right direction to using these funds as they had been used prior to the recession.

There is a very big win for our Education Support Professionals in the budget. The budget includes almost $2 million to provide a health insurance credit of $1.50 per year for services to retired non-teacher school division employees having at least 15 years of total creditable service. The VEA has been fighting for this benefit for years, and we worked hard this session to pass House Bill 1513, establishing this benefit. We are grateful to Delegate Delores McQuinn for her work on this issue.
There are lots of other details in the budget, but I find the studies, workgroups and language changes interesting. First, there is language to establish a collective bargaining workgroup that will give a report to the General Assembly before the next session. The labor coalition had asked for that language to be included on the bill but thought we would need to get the Governor to add it. The language in the budget was a surprise and we are glad it is there. That will compel the General Assembly to talk about collective bargaining next session.

There are other studies in the budget that foreshadow some action we may expect next session. The budget asks that data be collected on the prevailing practice of planning time for our elementary school teachers. This has been an issue for years as it is so hard to build into the day. There were two bills this session (HB273 VanValkenburg/SB134 Stuart) that the VEA worked closely on, and we used our data to inform the legislators’ votes. Senator Stuart, in particular, highlighted the data we have collected. Our work led to this language in the budget and the work the DOE will now need to do to determine the actual prevailing practice and, hopefully, lay the groundwork to increase planning time for our elementary teachers.

The budget also included $100,000 for the Department of Education to study the teacher licensure process and any required assessments in the licensure process for any inherent biases that may prevent minority teacher candidates from entering the profession. This was a specific recommendation from the inaugural Teachers of Color Summit, and the VEA brought this issue to Senator Locke, who worked to pass this study this year.

There is also money in the budget to require the Department of Education to collect and report information about vacant positions in each school division and the number of individuals graduating from education preparation programs, by endorsement area. Basically, the DOE will need to identify the actual vacancies in positions and look at the pipeline for these positions. We thank Delegate Willet for championing this legislation. These studies show that the budget conferees want to dig into the teacher shortage and school employee working conditions. That is good news.

One other interesting language item addresses standardized statewide tests (the SOL tests) and performance assessments. While the VA Board of Education revised graduation requirements a few years ago, their work was overruled by the General Assembly. For the last few budgets, the General Assembly included language that prohibited the issuing of verified credits for graduation through performance assessments. The Board of Education recognized that there are better ways to assess student learning and the verification of a credit towards graduation then a bubble test. The General Assembly disagreed and prohibited any test that wasn’t an SOL-type test. The VEA opposed this action as it is a clear overstep of the constitutional authority of the General Assembly into the work granted to the Board of Education. Today, the budget strikes the prohibition language and grants the BOE the authority to issue verified credits using locally developed performance assessments. I tell folks all the time, our budget has lots of important numbers, but there is a whole lot of impactful language as well. It was about time this language was removed.

Overall, the conference budget continues the work that started with the last biennial budget. There is still a long way to go. The road will not be easy as there will need to a real look at new revenues—not casinos, or games of skill, or on-line lottery sales—that can be invested in K-12. We cannot keep shifting money from one priority to another. We must develop a real plan to move more money into all our public services including, and especially, public education. It is well past time.