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 
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.

Direct Aid to Public Education 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."
(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.