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.