Lawmakers from both parties agree: It’s time to step up state aid for needy school districts

By: - February 14, 2020 12:01 am

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, addressed school funding needs at a press conference on legislative priorities for small and rural school districts.

When it comes to stressing the needs of cash-strapped school districts, Keith Perrigan, president of the state’s Coalition of Small and Rural Schools, likes to let other educators do the talking.

Members of the coalition shared plenty of anecdotes at a news conference on Thursday outlining their priorities in the ongoing legislative session. Among them: school construction funding, coping with enrollment loss and a bill from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, that would increase the ratio of school counselors to students.

“There are things that need to be addressed in order to survive, like a hole at the bottom of a boat,” said Peter Gretz, the superintendent of Middlesex County Public Schools. “You can’t survive without addressing that need.”

Finding new money for school construction was the coalition’s first priority. Virginia is home to some of the wealthiest counties in the country, but many rural and low-income municipalities still struggle to fund necessary improvements to failing infrastructure at local public schools.

In Bristol, where Perrigan serves as school superintendent, the newest public school was built in 1974. Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, said one school building in his district (which includes the city of Bristol) was built during the Coolidge administration.

“Most people don’t even remember that Calvin Coolidge was president,” he said at the conference. “But nonetheless, that’s what we’re dealing with.”

A 2013 study ordered by then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell found that more than 60% of Virginia’s school buildings were more than 40 years old, with an estimated $18 billion price tag for renovating all schools more than 30 years old. Education advocates were notably displeased by this year’s budget proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam, which omitted funding for school construction and renovations.

The lack of construction funding, and other perceived shortcomings, have led to a bipartisan display of support from state lawmakers. The Coalition of Small and Rural Schools backed complementary bills from O’Quinn and Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, that would establish a statewide school construction fund to provide grants to local school boards. O’Quinn’s died in a House committee, but Pillion’s passed the Senate this week on a 40-0 vote.

But at Thursday’s press conference, both were joined by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who emphasized the commonalities between rural and urban districts with limited money for school improvements.

“Our problems are exactly the same, even though the skin color of our students may be a little bit different,” Jones said. “We’re all trying to find the best way forward.”

Some funding shortages can be linked to low-income areas with transient populations. This year, Hurst introduced a budget amendment to provide a cushion for schools with enrollment loss — when school districts lose students between attendance counts in March and September.

Losing even a few students can reduce state funding levels by thousands of dollars. Amy Griffin, the superintendent for Cumberland County Public Schools, said her district is projected to lose 70 students by the next budget cycle, reducing state funding by $100,000.

For small school districts, that can represent a significant loss, forcing staff cuts and other reductions. It’s also common. Fifty-eight of 76 districts in the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools are experiencing enrollment loss. Gretz said high-poverty areas tend to experience the worst fluctuation. Perrigan once lost roughly 11% of his students in one summer after two coal mines in the region closed.

“We tend to have very transient populations,” Gretz said. “They’re families that struggle to make rent. Two or three months go by and they’re gone. And if they leave before March 31? No state funding for them.”

Hurst’s amendment would restore $8.1 million in state funding over two years to subsidize those losses in local school districts. Lawmakers will debate the budget in the coming weeks, but it’s one effort among many to force school improvements across the state.

“In southwest Virginia, we’ve constantly been asked to do more with less,” Pillion said. “It’s time for us to step up and return parity to public education.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.