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McDonnell gets division that can take over failing schools

Budget appropriates $150,000; governor says he may seek more

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General Assembly
GENERAL ASSEMBLY COVERAGE: Follow the latest news and updates from the 2013 session of Virginia's General Assembly.

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 3:45 pm, Sat Apr 19, 2014.

One of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s most dramatic education initiatives, a proposed statewide school division to take over struggling schools, is on track to take effect after it secured funding in the budget.

Legislation creating the division, which passed the General Assembly and made it to McDonnell’s desk, carried a clause stating that it must be funded in the budget for enactment. Negotiators included $150,000 in the budget passed Saturday — far less than the $600,000 that McDonnell requested and the House of Delegates included in its version of amendments to the state’s current two-year budget.

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McDonnell indicated he might try to get the appropriation back up to $600,000.

“These are just startup costs anyway; I’ll look for some other resources. … May send down a budget amendment,” he told reporters after adjournment Saturday. “That’s a very important piece of legislation, and I think it ought to be funded appropriately. So that’s one of the areas I’ll consider amendments.”

The Senate did not include any money for the proposal in its budget proposal, and last week it registered a symbolic protest by spiking a companion measure to the one that has already made it to McDonnell.

The legislation allows a statewide school division, run by a board of state lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees, to take over schools that have been denied accreditation or are in their third year of warning. Currently, that includes at least six schools — two of them in Petersburg.

That said, budget language takes precedence over legislation and the budget’s parameters are narrower.

Chiefly, the budget says the so-called Opportunity Educational Institution would take over schools that have been denied accreditation for the previous two school years. Under those parameters, fewer schools would fall under the division’s umbrella.

To lose accreditation, schools must fail to meet basic academic benchmarks at least four years in a row.

A McDonnell spokesman said, “With any appropriation in the budget, the OEI will go into effect. The bill and the final budget will go to the governor and he will have the opportunity to review and sign or amend at that time.”

The governor could amend the budget language and legislators will return to Richmond in six weeks to consider his amendments.

The approved budget also includes a directive for the legislature’s watchdog arm to study options for the restructuring of the state’s lowest-performing schools — a provision proposed by the Senate — and that report is due before the Opportunity Educational Institution would take effect.

The report is due by June 30, 2014, and the legislation states that the division could not start accepting schools until after the 2013-14 school year.

McDonnell’s administration pushed through the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, over the opposition of the state’s education associations — teachers, superintendents and school boards.

They maintained emphatically that the construct, based on Louisiana’s Recovery School District, is unconstitutional.

Pat Lacy, with the Virginia School Boards Association, said he’s pleased that the conferees “limited the scope of the legislation” but added that he’s still “disappointed that the legislation appears to be going into effect even though I sincerely believe it is unconstitutional.”

Robley Jones, with the Virginia Education Association, said he anticipates litigation regarding the constitutionality of the measure.

“Budget language directs JLARC (the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission) to study the issue of underperforming schools, and we hope a more thoughtful response to the needs of the students in underperforming schools will be forthcoming,” he said. “We share the desire to address this issue.”

omeola@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6812

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