MOUNT JACKSON – Administrators from four area school divisions and representatives of state and national lawmakers gathered at Triplett Tech on Wednesday to discuss four issues of importance to the schools.
Schools represented at the “Take Your Legislator to School” event included Harrisonburg City, and Page, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties. Lawmakers or their representatives at the meeting included Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg; Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave; Kelly Johnston, representing U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia; Jennifer Aulgur, representing Virginia Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg; Jeff Walters, representing Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock; and Emilee Loope, representing U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Virginia, 6th District.
One of the issues discussed regarded changes in the state’s Standards of Quality.
Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnston said changes to the standards have resulted in school divisions having to do more but without additional funding, calling it unfunded mandates.
“We are hesitant about unfunded mandates,” Johnston said.
He explained that the Virginia Board of Education recently approved revised Standards of Quality that will go to the Virginia legislature for action.
One revision school associations are expected to support is the removal of the cap on support positions, such as instructional assistants and school counselors.
The cap was put into place as a result of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and resulted in decreased state funding for those positions. The school divisions want that funding to be restored and more flexibility in deciding what positions would be used with those funds.
Johnston said, for example, that Shenandoah County schools could use more positions to handle behavioral support, such as behavioral analysts while another participating division may have different needs.
A second issue discussed was changes made by the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services and its anticipated impact on mental health services for students.
Harrisonburg City Public School Board Member Obie Hill explained that school divisions this year have seen a decrease in the availability of therapeutic day treatment services, which are services provided to a student by school division partners when a student shows behaviors that are typical of trauma.
Those services which used to be available for six months, are now offered for three months at which time Medicaid (which pays for the services) releases the student and another application has to be submitted for those services.
Hill said 30 students in Harrisonburg High School were receiving those services and at the start of this school year there were three. He said any interruption, delay or denial in those services is devastating as it erodes the mental health support of a student.
The third issue are changes in funding regional special education programs and the anticipated impact on the local divisions.
Rockingham County Public Schools Superintendent Oskar Scheikl discussed the changes that will no longer provide an incentive to a regional approach to the programs and sharing its cost.
“In our current situation, we have a regional program. This is how it should be done,” Scheikl said.
Attendees have heard that the Virginia Department of Education, following concerns of inequitable distribution of funds for regional programs, has decided to move to individual division applications with funding provided to each division for direct services, such as for special education teachers, paraprofessionals or sign-language interpreters.
“Districts with the largest numbers may do it on their own. The smaller districts will be the ones hurt,” Scheikl said.
He asked that lawmakers encourage continuing special education funding with a regional approach.
The fourth issue discussed is the need to address the teacher shortage in Virginia and the nation.
Page County Superintendent Wendy Gonzalez said Virginia ranks 38th in teacher salaries.
“The single most important variable affecting student achievement is the quality of the teacher. Yet our teachers are leaving the profession or not entering the profession,” Gonzalez said.
After school officials aired their concerns, lawmakers spoke. Wilt tol them: “I want to be encouraging but the things we talked about are heavy lifts and involve revenue.”
He explained that as educators, this is their passion but as lawmakers, they have a lot of people in a lot of various areas of work coming to them with needs.
Wilt said he would like to sit down with them and discuss priorities.
Landes told school officials that this is the beginning of the budget cycle and now is the time for schools to meet with local and state officials.
“After this election, there is the potential for further income,” Landes said, adding that localities must be ready to meet additional demands.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that there were 30 students last year in the Harrisonburg High School who received therapeutic day treatment services, and at the start of this year there are three students.