School cuts looming

Published 8:58 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

RICHMOND—State budget cuts could force Virginia school districts to adopt a “doomsday budget” that would require laying off teachers and staff, increasing student-teacher ratios, eliminating summer school and taking other drastic measures, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents warned Tuesday.

“If the term ‘doomsday budget’ sets off an alarm — good. It is time to be alarmed,” said Milton Liverman, president of VASS and superintendent of Suffolk City Public Schools.

“We want to come together as a group of superintendents because we feel it is important for everybody to know that we are all dealing with the same issues. We’re all concerned about the same negative impact that this General Assembly session could have on the progress that we have made in public education; and we have made tremendous progress.”

Delegate William Barlow, D-Smithfield, said that state legislators are “very concerned about education,” but acknowledged cuts will be “very deep.”

“It’s going to be awfully difficult for our citizens to go through, but we have to balance the budget,” he said. Unlike the federal government, Barlow said, Virginia is required to have a balanced budget. A recent survey of Virginia school superintendents by VASS found that:

n Nearly 50 percent are considering some form of salary reduction and at least 46 percent are considering cutting incentive programs.

n 89 percent are considering increasing pupil-teacher ratios and 91 percent are considering cutting teacher positions.

n Half of the respondents are considering budget cuts in programs such as summer school remediation, assistance for at-risk students and education for 4-year-olds.

Dr. Michelle Belle, superintendent of Franklin City Public Schools, said she didn’t hear anything about the budget that hasn’t been said time and time again.

“I think that’s what’s so frustrating about it,” she said. “We aren’t hearing anything new.”

Liverman said the “support staff ratio cap” is one of the main targets of budget reductions. More than $750 million in cuts are in the state budget proposed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, who left office Saturday. The amount of cuts could increase because the new governor, Bob McDonnell, has rejected tax increases recommended by Kaine.

Philip Worrell, VASS secretary/treasurer and superintendent of the Greensville County/Emporia schools, said that clerical staff in schools might expect to be laid off. Teachers and guidance counselors would pick up the duties left behind.

VASS is requesting a delay in the implementation of recent mandates until the state has funding to support implementation of the changes. If implemented now, the mandates would have a “serious negative impact on morale which can only negatively affect student performance.”

“If these mandates are implemented at a time when state funding is being reduced, we will find fewer schools fully accredited in the future,” Worrell said.

All three of Franklin’s public schools were fully accredited by the state last year, but Belle is concerned that the state’s budget could force staff and program cuts, which could jeopardize the division’s progress.

“That’s what scares me,” she said. “We can’t go backwards.”

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the contemplated cuts are the “absolute worst” she has ever seen while in office.

“Many of us are just so aggrieved how deep the cuts have been with our local schools and … have resolved to do whatever we can to try to get some of that funding restored,” Lucas said.