SWVA legislators: Region, not party, primary challenge in state schools funding in 2020

Mike Still • Nov 14, 2019 at 5:30 PM

ABINGDON — Regional lines and not a Democratic-dominated General Assembly will be the big challenge in state education funding, Southwest Virginia legislators told school superintendents and school board members.

First District Del. Terry Kilgore, 4th District Delegate-elect William C. Wampler III, 5th District Del. Israel O’Quinn and 40th District Senator-elect Todd Pillion — all Republicans — heard from Region VII school officials Wednesday at a listening tour meeting at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center.

A common theme was increased state funding for salaries, support personnel, building and infrastructure and at-risk students.

All of those increases should come without additional local funding matches by county and city governments, Lee County School Superintendent Brian Austin told the legislators.

Scott County Schools Superintendent John Ferguson said the 19 Region VII schools overall ranked first among the state’s eight school regions in 2018-2019 after considering pass rates in Standards of Learning tests and the pass rates for students with disabilities.

Ferguson said the region’s rankings dropped to the bottom among the state’s schools in two other areas, though: beginning teacher salaries and per-pupil funding after state and local funding matches were totaled.

“This says a lot,” Ferguson said. “Region VII continues to shine.”

Washington County School Superintendent Brian Ratliff told the legislators that the state education funding formula needs to change as rural school systems continue to do more with fewer resources.

Austin gave the legislators six funding priorities also advocated by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents:

— Boost teacher compensation by 2022 to help deal with teacher shortages.

— Increase overall funding for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade public education without requiring a local government match.

— Eliminate caps on school support staff while increasing Standards of Quality on staff ratios without a required local match.

— Bring state basic aid funding levels to or above pre-2008 recession levels and use all Lottery Fund proceeds in addition to other state funding.

— Restore state funding for buildings and infrastructure regardless of a locality’s ability to pay.

— Increase funding for at-risk students and give school systems more flexibility in ensuring all students’ success in any accountability standards.

While the General Assembly restored funding for school systems facing enrollment loss, Bristol Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan told the delegation, that funding is set to expire and needs to be reinstated by the legislature.

Besides the six priorities listed by Austin, Perrigan asked the delegation to look at incentives for public-private partnerships and other ways to finance school construction.

“It’s a time of change, but the amount the state gives hasn’t changed,” said Virginia Association of School Superintendents legislative liaison Tom Smith.

While Virginia is seeing a $200 million budget surplus as the General Assembly gets ready for its session in January, Pillion said he expected the state Medicaid expansion to eat into that surplus.

While the General Assembly starts 2020 with a Democratic majority in both houses, the delegation agreed that education will be defined more by the state’s regions than by party majority.

“It’s still more about region,” Kilgore said after the meeting. “I think we can work with Governor Northam.”

“Where Northam’s from, Accomack County, is as rural as we are here,” O’Quinn said. “The entire House leadership team will be from Northern Virginia. I hope they’ll continue to see education is a commonwealth issue.”

Pillion agreed that education funding will be determined along regional lines, but not only on urban-rural lines.

“Tidewater has the same problems as here, teacher shortages, crumbling schools,” Pillion said. “Northern Virginia has not seen the same sorts of problems. Even Richmond is seeing funding problems. These are commonwealth issues.”