Friday, April 19, 2024

Virginia Budget Puts Millions Toward Support Staff as Schools Struggle to Find Teachers

Virginia educators and supporters raise their hands as they chant for more school funding during the Virginia Education Association’s annual school funding rally at the State Capitol Bell Tower in Richmond on Jan. 27, 2020. (Photo by Emma Gauthier)

RICHMOND — Virginia schools will be able to hire more support staff positions, something educators say is desperately needed amid a continued teacher shortage.

State lawmakers last month approved an amended budget that will direct $152 million toward these school support positions. The appropriations help boost the ratio of allotted support staff per teacher. The funding ratio increased from 21 support positions per 1,000 pupils to 24 per 1,000 pupils — though the older standard was 26 support positions, according to a July report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

This funding has been capped for over a decade, following a $3.7 billion shortfall in the Great Recession-era budget that was never adjusted. The cap reduction resulted in a $331 million reduction in state education funding last year, according to JLARC.

Some positions limited by the cap include administrative, clerical and operations staff, as well as technology and instructional professionals, according to the Virginia Association of School Superintendents website. Many education groups say the cap has resulted in the loss of thousands of support staff, even as enrollment grew.

The state’s Standards of Quality provide the foundation for public education, including minimum staffing needs. The standards typically under-calculate how much staff is actually needed, according to JLARC. Elimination of the support cap was a near-term recommendation on the report.

Virginia school divisions receive less K–12 funding per student than the national average, according to JLARC. Other states receive just under $2,000 more per student.

Chad Stewart, the Virginia Education Association’s policy analyst, said this cap was supposed to be temporary.

“An entire generation of kids have gone through their K-12 experience in the state of Virginia with far less support staff for helping their schools function and making sure that teachers weren’t overwhelmed with all these additional duties, and could focus on teaching,” Stewart said.

When there is an inadequate amount of support staff in schools, teachers or other support staff have to fill multiple positions, according to Stewart.

“It takes them [teachers] away from the duties they’re trained to do, which is supporting students in different ways,” Stewart said.

Guidance counselors in particular have fulfilled multiple support positions, such as monitoring cafeterias or clerical work in the office, according to Stewart. A law took effect July 1 to ensure counselors spend at least 80% of their time doing direct counseling of students.

Teacher Karl Knoche has worked at Virginia Beach City Public Schools since 2007. He has taught government and economics at First Colonial High School since 2014.

“All the support staff at my school does a great job of helping teachers and students, and I feel that I can go to them with any problems,” Knoche stated in an email.

Knoche has extra duties such as monitoring students between classes, during lunch and before school, which can be “time consuming,” he stated.

Teachers seem to have more responsibilities outside of the classroom than when he first started teaching, according to Knoche.

“We have been fortunate at my school to be fairly well staffed,” Knoche stated. “We have had issues with having enough custodians, but that isn’t due to the lack of jobs, but the lack of interest in the jobs.”

Virginia leaders have grappled with teaching vacancies in recent years. The General Assembly committed to increasing compensation with 5% pay increases over three consecutive fiscal years starting in 2022, according to JLARC.

However, the pay increases may not address low or no compensation in previous years, coupled with inflation the past two years, the report stated. Additionally, not every school division could fund the full 5% increases because their locality does not provide enough matching funds “for employees not recognized through the SOQ formula.”

Virginia ranks No. 22 for teacher pay, which is an average salary of about $61,000, according to the National Education Association.

The state had over 3,500 unfilled teaching positions in the 2022-23 school year. Elementary school teachers accounted for the most vacancies, followed by special education, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. Special education positions at 5.8% had the highest percentage of unfilled positions, followed by world language and then elementary school teachers.

The VDOE announced a strategic plan in 2022 to improve teacher recruitment and retention. The goals are to make it easier for qualified teachers to be hired, consider more candidates eligible to fulfill open positions and reinforce strategies that maintain a thriving workplace, such as programs focused on teacher retention.

The use of appropriated funds will vary by district, but the intent is that local school divisions will use funds for support staff positions, according to a VDOE email response.

The governor and lawmakers have removed close to “three-quarters of the support positions cap” in the past two sessions, the VDOE stated.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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