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Educators want more money in classrooms
'We have to live within our means': Northam touts historic education spending as teachers call for more

Keri Treadway has a routine.

Before any students enter her kindergarten classroom in Richmond in the morning, Treadway sweeps up the pieces of plaster that have fallen onto the floor from the ceiling of a building that opened in 1911.

In the fall and spring, she empties the dehumidifier multiple times in an effort to control the humidity levels in a classroom that can reach 90 degrees. No matter the season, the veteran teacher — who is paid below the national average like most other Virginia teachers — keeps Clorox wipes nearby, ready to clean up any mouse droppings that may have been left overnight.

“As educators, we do our best to meet the needs of our students, despite the many obstacles we face,” said Treadway, who teaches at William Fox Elementary, one of the highest-performing schools in Richmond. “We do our best to deal with the challenges of working in an environment that fails to provide adequate resources.”

As a new General Assembly session begins with Democrats in control of the House of Delegates, the state Senate and the governor’s office, educators in Virginia again are calling for more money to be poured into classrooms.

Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed $1.2 billion in new education spending, but all but $400 million of the plan is for technical changes. Educators want more.

Students in the state perform above national averages, but their achievement on major tests is falling. School facilities across the state are old and crumbling. Disparities exist between students living in poverty and those from affluent families.

Yet funding for schools, when adjusted for inflation, hasn’t caught up to what it was before the Great Recession.

The state legislature is set to take up a series of proposals aimed at addressing these issues, including one prescribed by the state’s education governing board that says an influx of money and support is needed, especially to keep teachers like Treadway in the classroom.

Here’s what to know about the proposals:

Standards of Quality

For the past 35 years, the Virginia Board of Education has made recommendations to the state over what schools need to properly educate students.

This year, the board went further, prescribing changes it thinks the state needs to make to close achievement gaps and to make sure students have experienced and effective teachers.

The result was a proposal, unanimously approved by the board of gubernatorial appointees, that calls for more reading specialists, smaller class sizes and more money for schools serving students from low-income families.

The proposal also calls for a teacher-leader and teacher-mentor program, mentorship for principals and the reaffirmation of a previous recommendation that there should be one full-time school counselor for every 250 students in school.

“Teachers matter,” said Board of Education President Dan Gecker. “Putting effective teachers in front of our children who are most in need is important.”

While there’s widespread support on the policy, the price tag of the changes has raised eyebrows.

The changes would cost roughly $600 million per year, according to the letter the board sent to Northam and legislators after it approved the new standards in November. That doesn’t include an estimated $406.4 million to roll back a state-imposed limit on school support positions, such as social workers, custodians and psychologists.

That cap was implemented during the economic downturn of 2007-09, when budgets in different areas of state government, including education, were cut. Funding hasn’t recovered.

State spending per student is down 8% compared with before the Great Recession, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization. An average of $5,749 is spent on every student by the state, compared with $6,225 in the 2008-09 school year, after adjusting for inflation.

“The steps we believe we need to take in order to improve educational outcomes cost money,” Gecker said. “Those steps largely are how to redirect more experienced teachers to areas that need them more than where they are today.”

He added: “We’ve tried to increase resources before, but we have not yet tried to direct those resources toward very specific actions.”

Rebenchmarking

While the Board of Education is asking for changes to how money is distributed and to programs funded by the state, lawmakers are looking at an even larger bill for technical changes.

What was initially a roughly $600 million update for the next two years has climbed to more than $800 million, lawmakers learned in November.

Every other year, the state is required to “rebenchmark” its budget, which entails updating the number of students enrolled in state schools, the cost of inflation and the percentage of students qualifying for free meals, among other things.

Take an update to the number of English Learner students, for example. Virginia has seen a drastic climb in the number of students learning English over the past 10 years, rising from 64,261 in 2009-10 to 116,454 this school year.

With that growth expected to continue, state officials say Virginia will need $7.4 million more over the next two years to pay for remedial summer school and English as a Second Language programs.

Northam’s budget

Aside from education funding for required technical changes, the remaining $400 million in Northam’s proposed two-year budget would fund a 3% teacher raise in the second year of the budget ($145.1 million), $99.3 million for more school counselors, $27.6 million for more teachers with the state’s climbing English Learner population and $10.6 million to help cover the cost of school meals for families who currently qualify for reduced price meals. An additional $125 million is in the budget as flexible money for local districts.

There’s also $140.4 million to increase the “At-Risk Add-On” fund, which gives incentive money to state school divisions — above the normal Standards of Quality — for every low-income student. The governor’s office said it would be the largest single increase to the fund in the state’s history.

“Students deserve quality public schools, no matter where they live,” Northam said last month when announcing his education proposal. “This budget provides extra funding to help close the achievement gap in high-need schools, especially in urban and rural Virginia. Every child should have access to a world-class education, and this budget advances that commitment.”

It does not include money for new school construction or renovations.

The budget has drawn criticism from teachers across the state, notably at public hearings held in early January.

“The governor’s budget proposal for education is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, it’s not sufficient,” said Caroline County teacher Rachel Levy.

Said Chesterfield County teacher Devyn Keller: “Much of the additional money for K-12 will solely keep up with the rising population and inflation and I fear that it is not enough to create meaningful changes to school systems across the state.”

At one public hearing, Bristol schools chief Keith Perrigan, who oversees a district where all but one school was built before 1968, criticized the lack of money for school facilities improvements.

“I realize that the state is not responsible to repair or replace every school in the commonwealth, but Virginia is ethically obligated to do their share,” he said. “The current budget’s silence on this issue is deafening.”

Northam defended his budget, saying it makes progress as schools still recover from the Great Recession reductions.

“Would we like to do more? Absolutely. But we have to live within our means,” he said. “Education will continue to be a top priority for us, but you can’t make up in just one year.”

The governor’s budget increases the money spent on at-risk students, but doesn’t create the “Equity Fund” the Board of Education has said the state needs.

“We’re all very happy to see the amount of dollars being proposed to achieve an equitable outcome for our kids,” Gecker said. “We believe those dollars should be spent slightly differently than how they’re being allocated in the budget.”

Even if the General Assembly signs off on the proposed teacher raise, educators in the state will still be paid below the national average of $59,539.

“We should all find that as unacceptable and continue to work in that direction, but you can’t do all of that in just one year,” Northam said.

The new state budget, once approved, is set to take effect July 1.


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Some veteran Henrico teachers say their wages are still compressed after $3.8 million fix

Some of Henrico County’s longest-serving educators say they were left behind this year when the school system tried to address salary compression.

About 350 teachers with more than 25 years of classroom experience did not see their paychecks grow beyond a 3% raise all school system employees received as the system boosted wages for about half of its teaching workforce this school year.

The move to adjust the system’s pay scale — which cost an extra $3.8 million — was designed to attract and retain talented teachers, school officials said. The benefits went mostly to early to midcareer experienced teachers, according to figures provided by the administration of Superintendent Amy Cashwell.

Schools spokesman Andy Jenks said teachers with five to 24 years of experience were the most compressed under the division’s old pay scale system; an inequity the county set out to alleviate.

“The teachers considered to be most negatively impacted by compression received an additional raise,” Jenks said. “Compression relief is not a loyalty or longevity bonus.”

But when contract offers for this year were sent out last May, some teachers who had been anticipating the compression adjustment were dismayed.

“When their new contracts were released, I think a lot of people discovered that it wasn’t what they expected,” said Henrico Education Association President Jeannine Chewning. “There were many hundreds of emails.”

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Salary compression generally occurs when pay for newer, less experienced employees becomes comparable to that of longtime employees because of rising starting salaries and prior years where wages remained flat.

In schools, the dynamic can push experienced teachers whose talents are needed in the classroom to become administrators, where they’ll be able to make more, Chewning said.

The county announced in December 2018 that it would allocate $6 million in the 2020 fiscal year budget to address compression for school and Henrico government employees at the recommendation of a committee of officials that convened after former Supervisor Courtney Lynch’s call for $4.3 million to improve pay and address compression for teachers was rebuffed.

The $3.8 million for teacher salary compression was in addition to $12 million the county added to its annual budget to cover a 3% raise for the school system’s approximately 7,000 employees, Jenks said.

County Manager John Vithoulkas said last week that there are no plans to put more money for compression in next year’s budget, but that the county has committed to reviewing salary compression every three years to determine if more needs to be done to fix it.

In the meantime, the school division is creating a new career development system with money attached.

The new “career ladders” initiative, officials say, could give teachers another opportunity beyond getting a master’s degree, doctorate or National Board Certification to get better pay, potentially by taking special courses, obtaining extra credentials or agreeing to work at schools with high turnover and vacancy rates.

“It’s an opportunity to allow a teacher to enhance their education and the delivery of education to our students,” said Assistant Superintendent Chris Sorensen. “It has to be a combination of things so that those opportunities are available [to teachers].”

The school district has yet to say how much more pay the initiative could yield for teachers.

Chewning, who was involved in discussions last year about the compression adjustment plan, said she understands why the school system determined that teachers with moderate experience were prioritized.

Still, without additional opportunities to improve their pay beyond additional wage adjustments or annual raises that are never guaranteed, she said more experienced teachers will continue to think the only way to make more money sooner is to become administrators.

“I like the idea of keeping teachers in the classroom,” she said.

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Jenks said the county is aiming to have a preliminary plan for the new career development initiative in place before the 2020-2021 school year.

In an editorial published by The Times-Dispatch last week, Bill Pike, a former Henrico principal and teacher who retired from the School Board last month, said low morale among teachers is leading to early resignations and retirements.

Over the last decade, the annual turnover rate in Henrico schools has increased from about 8% in 2010 to around 11% in each of the past four years. Before the start of this school year, there were a total of 72 vacant teaching positions, 10 more than the year before.

Pike declined to be interviewed for this story, but said he was not thinking specifically about salary compression when he wrote his editorial. He called it a “very important” issue.

Micky Ogburn, now the School Board’s longest-serving member, thinks the county is making progress, but said more work needs to be done.

“I’m really looking forward to how it’s going to turn out. We haven’t seen anything yet. At this point, we’re still getting feedback from our teachers as to what a career ladder should look like,” she said. “We want to get feedback from teachers to make sure we come up with a plan that they can support.”

Cashwell, the school system’s superintendent, will present her fiscal year 2021 budget proposal to the School Board on Jan. 30.


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Hilbert to recuse himself as Richmond City Council decides fate of proposed North Side homeless shelter

To advocates for the homeless, a proposed shelter on Richmond’s North Side is a crucial addition for the region’s unhoused.

To neighboring business owners and civic associations, it’s an affront that will dampen the area’s potential and worsen crime.

On the Richmond City Council’s agenda Monday is a special-use permit for a homeless shelter with 97 beds. Seeking the permit is The Salvation Army Central Virginia, which also wants to relocate administrative offices and programming from other facilities it owns in the city to the building at 1900 Chamberlayne Ave.

The council is expected to decide whether its plans move forward this month. However, the area’s representative, council Vice President Chris Hilbert, will not take part in that decision despite opposing the project. Hilbert said he believes the shelter will exacerbate prostitution and crime in the area, and may lead to the closure of a neighboring bank.

Supporters of the shelter said it would reduce the burden on the city’s cold weather overflow shelter during the winter months and meet a major need indicated by the biannual census of the region’s homeless. The survey found that 50% of people living outside would have accepted a shelter bed if one were available.

For single men, there is a three-week wait for shelter beds, said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, which helps coordinate the region’s services for the homeless.

“It would be transformational,” King Horne said

The Salvation Army stripped 100 beds out of its original plans after pushback from property owners and civic associations. Opponents of the shelter at a Planning Commission meeting, Hilbert among them, said it didn’t align with a 2016 master plan for the area, and worried openly that allowing it would effectively dash any chance the area has to attract future investment.

“We have hopes of a Panera, of a Patient First. We have hopes of dry cleaning services and a florist. Walk down Lombardy [Street] and you’ll see the potential,” said Alesa Hemenway, secretary of the Chamberlayne Industrial Center Association.

After making clear his objections, Hilbert told other council members last week that he would not participate in the body’s debate or vote on the matter.

Hilbert’s wife, Sheila Mandt, worked as the director of development for the Salvation Army’s Richmond region for a short period in the early 2000s. Hilbert shared the link in private conversations about the proposed shelter, but did not publicly disclose it in his critical comments to the city’s Planning Commission, which unanimously endorsed the request last week.

Hilbert’s decision to recuse himself came after he first said in an interview that his wife’s departure from the organization did not color his view of the Salvation Army’s project.

“It’s been so long ago that it’s just not relevant to the issue,” he said, adding that she left the job on good terms. “Because it was so long ago, there’s no conflict related to it.”

Later that day, he changed his tune.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I’m not going to vote on this,” he said in a second interview, citing what he called the potential for an “appearance of a conflict.”

His decision puts his colleagues in an unusual position. Typically, the council defers to the wishes of an area’s representative when it comes to special-use permit requests, even if a project could address an issue of citywide import.

Councilwoman Kimberly Gray said she shared Hilbert’s concerns about opening a shelter on the Chamberlayne Avenue corridor. That he does not support the proposal influenced her view of it, she added.

“He’s closest to the corridor. He’s there. He sees what’s going on.”

Others have signaled a willingness to break with the council’s typical practice for this particular request.

Ellen Robertson, the 6th District councilwoman who also sits on the Planning Commission, said she would support the request when it came up for a vote.

“I’m strongly supportive of this, and I’m strongly supportive of the work that is done by this organization,” Robertson said.

Like Hilbert, other opponents of the shelter at the Planning Commission meeting said they felt it would result in more crime in the area.

The concern is familiar and frustrating to Karen Stanley, president and CEO of CARITAS, a nonprofit that aids people who are homeless and fighting addiction. Property owners are usually loath to have a facility that helps the homeless nearby.

In 2018, a short-lived plan to relocate the city’s cold weather overflow shelter to Manchester was snuffed out in the face of backlash from business owners and residents in the South Richmond neighborhood. Many cited crime as their main concern.

“It’s a misconception of who the homeless are,” Stanley said. “And it’s fear. To me, you have to replace the fear with knowledge.”

The Salvation Army decided to buy the building after a two-year search for a bigger facility. The Chamberlayne Avenue building’s proximity to downtown, where other homeless service providers are clustered, distinguished it from other options, said Stephen Batsche, The Salvation Army Central Virginia’s executive director.

The sale of the building is contingent upon the council approving the special-use permit, he said. It would then undergo a $5 million to $6 million renovation. The charitable organization hopes to move into the building by spring 2021.

The council meets at 6 p.m. Monday.