Dollar for Dollar: Former Governor’s budget, if passed, would still fall short in Virginia’s Appalachian schools

By Alexa Nash

Feb. 25, 2018

Giles County Public Schools, a district in Appalachian Virginia, has struggled from budget cuts and lack of legislative action to send more dollars to their schools. “They always seem to delay the increases, it seems like, to the second year of the budget,” Ballard said. “To be honest with you, I always thought that was kind of gutless.” Photo by Alexa Nash.

RICHMOND, Va.– Crumbling facilities, declining enrollment numbers and meager teacher salaries due to funding deficits shortchange southwestern Virginia’s public school systems and force communities to abandon their deeply rooted identities and move elsewhere to thrive.

“When you’re making 22, 28, 30 thousand [dollars] a year, it’s kind of hard to live; even in the coalfields where things are a lot cheaper,” said Dr. Anita Puckett, associate professor and director of appalachian studies at Virginia Tech.

Southwestern communities have faced federal underfunding since at least 2009, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed biennial budget hopes to alleviate financial pressure on these public school systems. Giles County is one of those districts, which had to combine and share janitorial and accounts payable services with the county. They also cut approximately 25 teacher assistants and combined bus routes which made students’ ride times longer.    

“We’re always lacking,” Chairman of the Giles County Public School Board, Marion Ballard, said. “We’re not asking for extra shrubbery, or grass, or new lawn mowers or anything like that. We’re asking for classrooms, and specialists and extra teachers’ aides… just bare bones.

The proposed plan boasts a $1 billion increase in K-12 spending to provide more opportunities for students and incentivize teaching in poverty-stricken areas. This would help replace the $1 billion lost in state funding due to desperate cuts after the recession. High-poverty districts, like the rural southwestern region and central Virginia’s inner cities, took the biggest blows. One of the poorest southwestern districts, Lee County, will see $514,000 more state dollars in 2018 if the budget is approved– 2 percent increase from 2017, according to data by the Virginia Department of Education. The richest district, Loudon County in northern Virginia, will get approximately $20 million more in 2018– a 7 percent increase.

The progress over the past nine years to bring dollars back to schools has been incremental and inadequate, said Chris Duncombe, senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. Since 2009, the funding deficit is about 11 percent per student.

“That means that schools have been trying to do more with less for eight to nine years, and it’s had real impacts in Virginia classrooms,” Duncombe said.

The state’s proposed K-12 budget and amendments were analyzed by the Commonwealth Institute. About $436 million will go toward updating the budget formula, which is done every two years to more accurately project enrollment numbers. Teachers will receive a 2-percent salary increase by the second year, which rings in at $51 million.

“I think that that’s modest continued progress,” Duncombe said, suggesting that the budget as-is isn’t a radical change from years past.

One comprehensive proposed amendment is sending more dollars to at-risk schools, or schools in impoverished areas that have a high percentage of students on the free and reduced price lunch program. The $7 million more in funding, called the At-Risk Add-On Program, will provide additional services to help students succeed. These programs include specialized instruction, dropout prevention programming and additional counseling. Another amendment would also provide stipends or bonus-based incentives to teachers who take positions in hard-to-staff schools.

Giles County would greatly benefit from the budget and its amendments to support more programming and a boost in teachers’ salaries. The district will receive about $324,000 more this year, a 2 percent increase, if the governor’s version of the budget passes. Its public school system is ranked as having one of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region at $35,000, according to data from the Virginia Education Association. Russell County has the lowest at $31,400.

A 2 percent raise means teachers would take home $35,700 as starting pay in Giles.

“If we’re not able to do something for teachers’ salaries, that’s going to hurt our teachers in the long run,” Giles County Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Terry Arbogast, said.

Arbogast said the At-Risk Add-On Program could help the 2,386 students in his district because of continued programming for special education and other during- and  after-school programs.

“It’s going to provide us some flexibility in order to continue to do that,” Arbogast said.

Another amendment would fund a full-time principal for all elementary schools with less than 300 students. Other funding for long-awaited staffing support is also under debate. After the recession, the Virginia Board of Education cut specialized staff such as custodians, school nurses and counselors to save money. Teachers had to take on extra responsibilities, which took up class time. Schools are still feeling those cuts: there are approximately 10 percent fewer staff now than in 2009, said Duncombe, and enrollment numbers across the commonwealth keep rising.

“If we had maintained staffing ratio to students, we’d have over 10,000 more staff in our schools today,” Duncombe says. Arbogast echoed the concern, stating that there have been fewer teachers attending job fairs in the southwestern region.

“When you go to the job fairs, you can see that the numbers are down for perspective teachers coming in,”  Arbogast said. The salary increase, he emphasized, would help bring more qualified teachers into his district.

“Any money that’s put into helping increase teachers’ salaries is going to continue to allow us to help maintain the current teachers that we have, but also going to allow us to be competitive within our regional area,” he said.

Arbogast mentioned rumors that these amendments have not been favorable in the General Assembly and they are not expected to be included in the final version. Ballard voiced his disagreements with his representatives.

“They always seem to delay the increases, it seems like, to the second year of the budget,” Ballard said. “To be honest with you, I always thought that was kind of gutless.”

Duncombe said that there is bipartisan support for the budget, and the final version could spark major improvements..

“They recognize that this is a shared challenge and we really need to look to address this and provide schools with the resources to help these students,” Duncombe said. “If fully funded, those recommendations would have largely restored our support for public education to pre-recession levels.”

The General Assembly aims to have the budget passed by March by meshing the House, Senate and former Gov. McAuliffe’s versions of the bill, but Arbogast seemed wary.

“They’re going to have to meld those together, somehow, to get an approved budget for the next biennium,” Arbogast said. Ballard said his biggest concern is putting more money in teachers’ paychecks in the first year.

“On our legislators’ part, they need to step up and put that money up front,” said Ballard. Our teachers need it, our districts need it.”

The Data

The data used in this story, Actual FY 2017 and Projected FY 2018 Payments Based on the Governor’s Proposed Amendments to the FY 2018 Direct Aid Budget (HB 29/SB 29), is from the Virginia Department of Education, and is a part of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s “Caboose Bill.” This data is relevant to the story as it includes includes the proposed summaries of every Virginia School District, including Giles County. Readers are encouraged to look up what their own districts may recieve if a similar version of the bill passes. The data from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis explains the increases and decreases in the overall proposed K-12 funding, along with other aspects of the bill.