Thursday, October 15, 2020

Conference Budget Avoids Worst, Victory on Sales Tax and ADM Protection

 October 15, 2020

Word started breaking late yesterday that there was an agreement between House and Senate Budget Conferees on the amendments to the 2020-2022 Biennial Budget. The conference report eventually was made available for us to see. I won’t lie to you—I was completely relieved when I was able to take a quick look at a couple of top lines.

First thing I looked for was Average Daily Membership (ADM) hold harmless language. As you know, most school divisions have seen a decline in student enrollment as result of COVID-19. The Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) estimates a decline of just about 40,000 students state-wide. While that is a small percentage of the 1.2 million students in our public schools, the decline would result in cuts in the CURRENT YEAR school budgets of up to $150 million. Those cuts would be devastating to most school budgets and most divisions would need to look at furloughs or lay-offs for school employees.

Our members sent emails, made calls, and told their stories to legislators, and we were heard. The conference budget includes full hold harmless language for the 2020-2021 school year. Keep in mind the original Senate budget did not include that language. The Senate also killed a bill that would have held school divisions harmless because they saw it as an issue for the Regular Session in January. Our members changed the minds of the Senate! We must thank the House leadership and especially the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Delegate Luke Torian, for understanding the need for this budget item and fighting for it to be included in the conference report.

The second item I looked for was the $95.2 million we asked for to fill holes left by reduced sales tax revenues for public schools. Again, the House led this fight with Delegate Cliff Hayes including a budget amendment to fill the hole. He was the only member of the House or Senate to fight for this fix from the very beginning. He understood the need and he proposed a solution. Both the House and Senate included the money in their budgets, and we are very glad to see that the conference budget keeps the allocation in place. Again, our members called, emailed, and reached out to their legislators to let them know the potential impact on the CURRENT YEAR budget without this help. We were heard. This action, along with the ADM language, will protect jobs and ensure that we maintain the educational capacity in our public schools to bring students back to our school buildings once it is safe to do so.

Sadly, we are now at a place where we needed to triage the most threatening wounds to our current budgets. We won that battle, but the victory our public schools need is still ahead. We have not recovered from the devastating cuts left over from the 2009 recession and now we are facing another economic downturn without a clear end in sight. Virginia cannot allow our public schools to be the last to recover. This crisis has shown everyone the economic driver our public schools are. It has also laid bare the inequities that exist across the Commonwealth and between neighborhoods. The pandemic has exposed for all to see the impact of our delays in closing the digital divide, our lack of systemic support for our at-risk students who live in poverty,  the impact on our Special Education students when their IEPs aren’t met or staffed, the lack of sufficient school staff to support the mental health and safety of our students, the role our schools play in feeding students, and the role our public schools play in supporting working parents and families.

While the pandemic has shown us how far we need to go, there is a path to follow. For the last five years the Virginia Board of Education has issued and prescribed revisions to the Standards of Quality that are focused on equity of opportunity and equity of services. It is well past time for the General Assembly to do more than what we have seen each session in each of these years—agreement in principle but not in dollars. “We would if we could, but we can’t” is not an acceptable plan. Instead the General Assembly needs to prioritize our public schools and follow the clear path the Board has laid out. You don’t need to leave breadcrumbs; the path is completely mapped out—adopt and fully fund the revisions to the Standards of Quality as prescribed by the Board of Education. Yes, it is expensive, but our public schools have been waiting for more than a decade, and they have been underfunded every single year of that decade. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our public schools, on our kids, and on our families should be all the evidence that is needed to make our public schools Virginia’s number one priority. It is well past time.