Richmond-area senator wants to restore pre-recession school staffing levels

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Lifting a decade-long cap on certain state-funded school staffing won’t come cheap, but Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, is asking the General Assembly to do it — again.

“I know last year I broke the bank with my budget amendments and this year, I might have again,” McClellan said in a Senate Finance committee meeting last week. 

“There’s a reason for that. I purposefully put this amount in so that we can see what we need to do to fully fund all of our K-12 needs at the levels we were were prior to the recession.”

McClellan’s amendment asks for $356 million to restore funding for positions like elementary school principals, assistant principals, school nurses, social workers and psychologists.

She knows it’s a big ask and doesn’t expect it all, so this year she’s provided smaller items that will put more nurses, social workers and psychologists in schools. Staffing those positions would cost about $97 million.

“I asked some of the school divisions if we can’t get the whole shebang, what is the personnel that is most important to you?” McClellan said. “I think if we could get the psychologists, the social workers and the nurses, that would be huge.”

Virginia capped the number of support staff to one staff member for every four instructional positions in 2009 to save money. Support staff includes nurses, counselors, social workers, cafeteria staff and others.

The state has never restored funding for those positions and localities haven’t been able to find the money to do it on their own, McClellan said. The state and municipalities share the cost of most public school positions.

Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond schools, told the Senate Finance Committee that students across the state deal with “unspeakable challenges” and schools are falling short in addressing those.

“I’m asked why do we need psychologists. Well, in less than a year that I’ve been superintendent, I have already lost half a dozen students to gun violence,” Kamras told the senators.

“Why do we need more nurses? Because I have students whose injections and medications have to be delayed because we only have a part-time nurse at many of our schools. Why do we need more social workers? Because over 10 percent of my students experience homelessness every single year.”

McClellan said she sees a strong connection between suspensions and other disciplinary actions and the lack of support staff in schools.

“We are taking away the professional that addresses the underlying behavior and leaving it to the teacher to figure out how to manage the classroom without the training to do that,” she said.

Putting money aside for one position could happen. There’s bipartisan support to increase the number of counselors in schools. Gov. Ralph Northam presented a $36 million proposal for getting more school counselors, which was also a recommendation from the Republican-led Select Committee on School Safety.