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
Support the Western Virginia Public Education Consortium
Maximize pre-kindergarten access for at-risk three- and four-year-old children
Recruit and retain early childhood educators
Support African American history education
Support history education through the American Civil War Museum
Provide no loss funding to localities
Expand access to school meals
Increase salaries for funded Standards of Quality instructional and support positions
Increase support for at-risk students
Increase support for Communities in Schools
Increase support for Jobs for Virginia Graduates
Enrollment loss
Chesterfield Recovery High School
YMCA Power Scholars Academies
Brooks Crossing Innovation and Opportunity Center
Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center
Literacy Lab - VPI Minority Educator Fellowship
Soundscapes - Newport News
Cost of Competing Adjustment
Active Learning grants
Blue Ridge PBS
Bonder and Amanda Johnson Community Development Corporation
Agency Total

(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.