RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers’ lack of a timetable for finalizing state budget amendments has left public school leaders uncertain about their own budgets.
Some division heads say they are uneasy about their ability to hire and retain teachers because of the lack of clarity on state funding for the next school year. Under the existing two-year budget, teachers will receive a 5% salary raise for the upcoming school year. Both the House and Senate are proposing amendments to provide an additional 2% raise, increasing the salary total to 7%, but with negotiations still ongoing, divisions are uncertain about what they can offer teachers.
“Nothing is final until we have a final meeting and it is printed,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, in an email to the Mercury. “We have 5% this year and maybe another 2% on top of that, but with the uncertainty in revenues and the banking situation and the volatility in the markets, nothing is final.”
Localities are now considering whether they should increase their own budgets to accommodate the expected salary changes before hitting state deadlines.
Local governments, which appropriate local funds to the school divisions, are required by state law to approve their annual budgets by May 15 or within 30 days of receiving estimates of state funds. School divisions then can adopt their budgets and distribute teacher contracts for current and potential teachers.
“We’re stuck with what specific amount is going to be on teacher contracts,” said John Gordon III, superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia schools were struggling with shortages of teachers for several reasons, including concerns over wages and a lack of interest in teaching. The commonwealth ranked 32nd among states on K-12 teacher salaries in 2019, according to a 2021 report by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Schools also lost experienced teachers to retirement or other industry opportunities.
In 2021, more than 15% of teachers told JLARC they were “definitely leaving” or “likely to leave” the industry after the 2022-23 school year.
Researchers said low pay and increased behavioral and mental health issues among students are some of the contributing factors, according to the November 2022 report by JLARC.
Virginia has sought to minimize the impact of teacher vacancies after a nearly 1% increase over the past two years by hiring provisionally licensed teachers. According to the Department of Education, special education has seen the highest teacher vacancy rates at the start of the past two school years.
Knight did not provide a timetable for when lawmakers would address the budget amendments, but said the team of Democrats and Republicans involved in negotiations are all in communication.
“We want to get it right, especially when it comes to ongoing expenses,” he wrote. “We will get the amendments to the budget. We just need another month or so to be more certain of our revenues. It will get done.”
The ‘skinny’ budget
The stopgap budget adopted by lawmakers in February appropriated millions to Virginia’s public schools to fill a funding shortfall caused by a miscalculation from the state’s basic aid calculator tool, which projects funds school divisions will receive from the state.
The temporary spending plan, also known as the “skinny budget,” included $132.7 million for the current school year and $125.8 million for the following year to support teacher recruitment and retention, school maintenance and learning loss remediation.
“No school system for the state of Virginia will get less money this year than they got last year based on the skinny budget, and when we come back for amendments, we’ll put more money in schools then also,” Knight told the Mercury during the April 12 veto session.
In December, education officials determined a flaw in the calculator had not accounted for a provision of state law holding localities harmless from Virginia’s elimination of the state portion of the grocery tax.
As a result, the calculations had provided inaccurate estimates for the following two years, leading to a statewide shortfall of $201 million — $58 million for the remainder of 2022-23 and $143 million in 2023-24.
The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, and the nonprofit Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis said the skinny budget did not fully resolve the $201 million shortfall.
“By using money that would have gone to schools anyway and deceptively changing the goalposts, Republicans have sought to mislead the public into believing they have made schools whole for the $201 million mistake,” said VEA President James Fedderman in a March 1 statement. “Only the Democrat-proposed Senate budget offered a complete fix to this careless mistake, and we need lawmakers to come back to the table and fully fund our schools.”
Laura Goren, research director at the Commonwealth Institute, said the stopgap budget only provided $16.8 million toward fixing the error and then relied on money from funding formula updates that adjust funding based on changes in enrollment and sales tax projections. Goren said the December budget already included the updates to the state’s funding formula.
“The ‘fix’ is only for the current fiscal year and doesn’t address the upcoming school year at all,” Goren said in a statement to the Mercury.
Thomas Taylor, superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools, said he credits Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration and the General Assembly for addressing the shortfall for school divisions. However, he said the school division is at least $4 million short for the upcoming fiscal year.
“The governor did direct the legislature to start addressing the calculation error, and they have made inroads in addressing the fiscal 2023 issues so that school divisions are not absolutely stuck three-quarters of the year with a shortfall that they had planned on,” Taylor said. “But there’s a big question mark with fiscal 2024, and certainly no school division had planned on that type of a revenue shortfall going into budget season.”
Hiring and retaining teachers
Several school superintendents said they are concerned that lawmakers’ potential inability to agree on state budget amendments will cause complications for local divisions in adopting provisional budgets and offering contracts to current and potential teachers and school support professionals.
Under the current budget, Virginia allocates money for the state’s portion of a 5% salary increase for all eligible public school teacher and support positions in the 2023-24 school year. To access the funds, localities must have provided at least a 2.5% salary increase through a local match in 2022-23 and must do so again in 2023-24. The state will pay the remainder.
However, depending on the size of the locality, school divisions may be left between “a rock and a hard place” if they cannot match the offer, Gordon said.
On Monday, the National Education Association released its annual report on average teacher pay. The data shows that Virginia increased its average teacher pay by 1.2% from the 2021-22 school year to the current school year, or from $61,367 to $62,104, which is below the estimated national average of $68,499.
In Hanover County, the school board included an additional 2% salary increase for all eligible faculty and staff in its budget for the 2023-24 school year, creating a 7% increase in line with House and Senate budget proposals under negotiation.
Mike Gill, superintendent of Hanover County Public Schools, said in an email to the Mercury that the school division felt it was safe to recommend the action after deliberations.
We recognize that the continued work of the General Assembly may impact the final content of our budget
— Mike Gill, Hanover County Public Schools superintendent
“Still, we recognize that the continued work of the General Assembly may impact the final content of our budget,” Gill said. “We are monitoring the state budget process closely and planning accordingly. Should there be a need to make technical amendments as a result of any final state budget decisions, we will work with our county counterparts to make such adjustments.”
Another factor for superintendents is that if lawmakers don’t return to make any budget adjustments until June, as reports have indicated is expected, schools will be closed, and current and potential teachers could be lost due to the delay.
“Not only will it be a hindrance because the majority, if not all, of the instructional staff has already gone for the summer, but it also runs up against the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ deadline [for] anyone who wants to take new roles in other school divisions,” Gordon said, referring to a regional understanding that unless there’s a promotion, school divisions don’t sign staff members from other schools after June 30.
Taylor added that the delay in addressing the budget amendments puts some school divisions at a disadvantage in retaining teachers.
If lawmakers don’t agree to a budget until June, school divisions must readjust their fiscal plans and reissue contracts after the school year has ended.
“This labor force has choices, and staying in public education and staying in competitive areas for teachers like Northern Virginia, I can tell you that it is a struggle,” Taylor said. “There are many school divisions that are better fiscally advantaged than others, and we really are clamoring for every dollar in terms of our recruitment and retention strategy. So the timeliness of issuing contracts with the right dollar figure does make a big difference to us.”
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