By Keith Perrigan
Perrigan is superintendent of Bristol Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia.
As you read the following words you may imagine a writer with a raised voice and clinched fists, angrily shaking as he screams the words that appear on the screen. Even though I have typed letters and emails in that very manner, that is not my demeanor today. Instead, imagine a writer with raised eyebrows and dropped jaw, staring blankly into space pondering how it is even possible that this letter is being written.
In too many schools across the Commonwealth, students will go to school tomorrow in a facility built prior to World War II, or one without functioning heat, or a leaking roof. It is not an understatement to say that Virginia’s schools, especially those in urban, small, and rural divisions are in crisis because they are unable to finance renovations or construction on their own while not receiving sufficient effort from the state in order to assist. To continue to ignore our school facilities amounts to nothing less than malfeasance.
Over the last two election cycles, students, teachers, and families across Virginia have been promised that if the State Legislature is flipped, real change will come. Now don’t get me wrong, public education champions abound. Dels. Lashrecse Aird, Israel O’Quinn, Jay Jones, Chris Hurst and James Edmunds, and Sens. Jennifer McClellan, Todd Pillion, Bill Stanley and John Edwards and the Virginia Board of Education all come to mind. However, we are approaching (have passed) Groundhog Day and, like the movie, it seems that we have awaken to a very similar scenario.
Giving credit where it is due, the governor’s budget provides additional funding for the at-risk Add on, pre-K enhancements, and students who arrive at school with socio-emotional challenges that are outside of their control. However, the budget, as it stands, does not increase teacher salaries next year, further neglects Virginia’s crumbling schools, and falls short of meeting the Virginia Board of Education’s recommended enhancements to the SOQs.
So far, the General Assembly’s money committees have not forwarded any bills that would address these important issues. Actually, the House Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee of Appropriations killed Del. O’Quinn’s HB 1274 that would have established a school construction fund to allow school divisions to apply for state grants to support school facility renovation or construction. This bill would have diverted existing dollars from the Literary Fund, which was originally created to support school construction but is no longer serving its purpose for local divisions, without a fiscal impact to the state.
An additional concern for education supporters, is the Governor’s proposal to tax “games of skill” and use those revenues to support public education has already been rejected in a House subcommittee of General Laws. The committee instead chose to ban these machines, this decision takes away $125 million in potential revenues for schools.
Thankfully, Sen. Pillion’s SB 1087, the companion version of the tabled HB 1274, continues to advance through the Senate education and funding committees. Sen. McClellan’s SB 728 to fully fund the SOQs, will also be considered soon in Senate Finance. So, opportunities remain for the General Assembly to ensure students, teachers, and families don’t wake up on March 7, when the General Assembly adjourns, to the same stark reality that they have faced since the Great Recession; that public education is not a priority.
We encourage the General Assembly to consider the following recommendations so they can deliver on their long overdue promises and responsibilities to not just return K-12 funding to pre-recession levels, but also to boldly begin to solve Virginia’s school facility crisis:
Fully fund the Virginia Board of Education’s recommended changes to the SOQ as recommended by Delegate Lashrecse Aird, Senator McClellan, and others.
Establish a VDOE program to provide school construction grants to school divisions as recommended by Del. O’Quinn and Sen. Pillion. We also applaud other legislators for their innovative proposals on this issue, including Delegate James Edmunds and Senator Bill Stanley.
Approve Del. Hurst’s Enrollment Loss Budget Amendment to ensure students in all zip codes receive equitable opportunities.
Approve one of several budget amendments from legislators, including Del. Kilgore, to provide teacher raises in the first year of the biennium.
We are encouraged that there are many other bills under consideration by the legislature that would enhance public education in Virginia.
Plenty of opportunities still abound for Legislators to deliver on their promises to Virginia’s future.
Let’s all work together to ensure that clinched fists nor dropped jaws are the legacy that is left by the 2020 Virginia General Assembly due to unfulfilled promises.