The Virginia Department of Education is headquartered in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Staffing at the Virginia Department of Education is significantly lower than surrounding states in several key offices — and it’s taking a toll on the agency’s ability to help local school districts, including making sure that struggling systems meet state standards. 

It’s an issue that hasn’t gotten much traction since a watchdog agency, the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, released a long-awaited report on VDOE earlier this week. But senior leadership at the department indicated that current staffing levels, largely dependent on funding from the state’s General Assembly, restricted some of the key recommendations in JLARC’s review.

“To do the level of independent verification requested in the report — it will take a significant amount of additional resources,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a presentation Monday, referencing a suggestion that VDOE begin independently confirming that local school divisions meet state-established educational standards. 

Currently, the agency relies on local districts to self-report whether they meet Virginia’s Standards of Quality — requirements set by the state’s Board of Education that range from school maintenance to minimum staffing ratios between students and teachers. 

The report found that the self-verification process fails to “fully verify compliance or monitor progress when corrective actions are needed.” But Virginia state code also “directs this self-certification approach in many cases,” according to the review, and the process has remained unchanged since at least 1991, when an earlier JLARC review found that “it is not clear whether DOE’s current activities are sufficient to ensure compliance with state standards.”

As with many of the issues identified in the report, JLARC suggested that state legislators should take a role in finding a solution. One policy recommendation was for the General Assembly to direct VDOE to implement a pilot program for more comprehensive compliance review during the 2021-2022 school year. But it’s a suggestion that would likely require two new staff positions and additional funding for the agency — a tough request in a biennial budget cycle hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and a projected $2.7 billion budget shortfall.

Proposed budget plans from the state House and Senate include nearly $300 million in one-time state and federal funding to help local schools weather the pandemic. But neither budget retains extra funding, passed in March before legislators were tasked with revising the state’s spending plan, that would direct more money to districts with a higher percentage of students who live in poverty.

Even before the start of the pandemic, the state’s Board of Education advocated for millions more to fully fund Virginia’s Standards of Quality — a budget request that legislators also declined to meet in full.

“If the General Assembly would adopt those standards, I think it would make it a lot easier for equity to be adopted across the board,” said Keith Perrigan, Bristol’s school superintendent and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia.

In many areas, years of underfunding have taken a toll on some of the agency’s most important functions, the report found. The agency has lost close to 20 percent of its staff since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008 — mostly office and administrative employees, according to the report.

“VDOE leadership and management staff indicate that the work done by wage staff before the Great-Recession was distributed to remaining employees, resulting in increased workloads,” it continued. Agency spending has only moderately increased over the past decade, and — with an average growth of 2.4 percent — has remained well below the 4.2 percent increase in total state spending over the same period.

That moderation hasn’t always been positive. JLARC found that the agency failed to provide adequate support to struggling school systems, relying on an approach that many local administrators said was too broad and overly focused on compliance. 

But VDOE’s Office of School Quality has 12 employees and 262 schools within its improvement program, a ratio of one staff member to every 22 schools. North Carolina, by contrast, has a 1:8 ratio, and Kentucky has at least one employee assigned to every school in the state’s improvement program — allowing staff members to dedicate weeks of individual attention to struggling programs, according to the report. 

Earlier this year, the agency launched a pilot program to update its school improvement process, but JLARC reported it was delayed by school closures at the start of the pandemic and a complicated reopening schedule for the fall semester. The report recommended that VDOE develop a long-term plan to improve the process, which should be presented by the end of June, but also suggested that the General Assembly fund between five and 20 additional staff members — a yearly cost of roughly $600,000 to $2.5 million in state funding.

There were similar staffing suggestions for the department’s Office of Teacher Education, a division that’s tasked not only with collecting data and developing programs to address the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, but with accrediting teacher preparatory programs at 36 colleges and universities. JLARC found that VDOE’s teacher recruitment efforts are “fragmented and under-resourced,” but the division only has three employees, with one focused on “general retention and recruitment efforts.”

“VDOE requested funding for one additional staff position for the Office of Teacher Education as part of the agency’s budget request for the 2020-22 biennium, but that position has not been funded,” the report continued. Over the past several years, the department has requested other funding for teacher recruitment and retention efforts, including a career fair in 2016 and, earlier this year, an automated system to help teachers find professional development opportunities and become credentialed. “These initiatives were not funded by the General Assembly,” according to the report.

In some areas, JLARC pointed out that VDOE could improve independent of legislative action. The report found that the agency’s $1 million teacher mentorship program, for example, which aims to improve skill building and retention, directed funding to divisions based on their share of new teachers and not the total number of unfilled positions.

The report tasked VDOE with developing a new methodology to direct more funding to districts with the largest teacher shortages. But Perrigan said that still didn’t address the overall amount of money allocated for the program.

“My initial impression was that there’s not a lot of money in that funding stream anyway,” he added. “But if the General Assembly would adopt the Standards of Quality that the Board of Education recommended, equity would be a lot easier to grasp across the board.”

Another possible solution: three more employees to help bolster the agency’s retention and recruitment efforts. Statewide, one percent of teaching positions are unfilled, but the problem is much more pronounced in some districts than others, the report found.

Bland County, for instance, has been unable to fill 15 percent of its positions, and shortages are generally more acute in areas with higher poverty rates, which also struggle to find teachers who are fully licensed.

According to JLARC, the additions would cost the state between $300,000 and $400,000, but could “strengthen the role that the Office of Teacher Education plays in helping school divisions.”

Whether state legislators will fund any of these initiatives remains to be seen. Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, a legislative member of JLARC and the House Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that the recommendations won’t be addressed in the ongoing special session. But they will be reviewed before the General Assembly reconvenes early next year.

“I think we need time to absorb what they said,” he added. “It needs to be taken under advisement by the Education Committee, and Appropriations would take their views into consideration.”