By Michael Campbell – News Editor
PRINCE GEORGE – Just over one month before the beginning of the 2017 General Assembly session, county leaders and the school board have joined their colleagues from around the state in urging the governor amend the biennial budget to help local school divisions.
In a joint letter sent by the Prince George School Board and the Prince George Board of Supervisors to Governor Terry McAuliffe, leaders in both bodies asked the McAuliffe to “slow down the accelerated local contribution rate for the Virginia Retirement System and restore state funding for salary increases for teachers and other instructional employees that was unexpectedly lost during this budget cycle.”
According to data from the Virginia Retirement System, the VRS employer contribution rates for teachers is 14.66 percent for the current fiscal year, FY 2017, and is slated to increase to 16.32 percent during the next fiscal year.
In their letter, county leaders note, “the original timetable for reaching VRS’ actuarial goals was FY2019, a date concurred by the State’s financial advisors.” Additionally when revenue projections were “more robust,” the decision was made by state officials to accelerate the 100 percent VRS funding plan from 2019 to 2016.
This comes after, in the 2010-2012 budget, payments of contribution rates to the VRS Trust Fund for the teacher plan, state employees, and several others were deferred. According to VRS, “amendments were made to the 2016-2017 budget to repay the 2010-2012 biennium deferred contribution to the state plans. Last year, “approximately $193 million” was made toward the ten-year payback of the deferred contributions.
For Prince George officials, they believe it would be more financially prudent to, given the changing economic circumstances, return to the original funding plan after slower-than-expected state revenue.
The state finished the 2016 fiscal year with a $266.3 million dollar shortfall. According to a report from the State Comptroller to the Governor’s Office, lower-than-expected revenue from individual income, sales tax collections and corporate income were nearly two percent below estimates.
“The more measured FY2019 VRS Schedule would reduce local VRS contributions so that other school services would not be harmed by unanticipated higher payments to VRS,” Prince George officials explained. “For example, the estimated increased cost from school employees of the accelerated VRS contribution is $520,000 in FY2018.”
The county’s two-page letter not only focused on returning VRS contributions to the original FY2019 funding plan, but it also discussed the loss of state funding for a two-percent salary increase for instructional personnel in FY2017.
In August of this year, McAuliffe went before the General Assembly’s Money Committees and stated that tough decisions would have to be made as the state faces a $1.5 billion shortfall, noting that money earmarked for teacher raises, approximately $125 million, could be used to plug the budgetary hole.
“The loss of state funding for the two-percent salary increases for instructional personnel for FY2017 would result in a reduction of $324,291 in state funding in FY2017 and potentially $561,000 in FY2018; a loss that cannot be replaced without negatively impacting other county and school services,” the letter, signed by school board chairman Kevin Foster and board of supervisors chairman William Robertson, Jr., stated.
County leaders also stressed that the affect of the cut state funding would be felt more in Prince George than other localities because “about 30 percent of students come from Fort Lee, a Department of Defense facility for which the county receives no real estate tax revenue.”
“The county is eligible for federal impact aid for the cost of educating these Fort Lee students, but a portion of those impact aid funds are invariably received years after the costs are incurred, are subject to unpredictable timing and are funded by Congress at less than 100 percent of the eligible amount,” the letter reads.
The Virginia Education Association has also been vocal about their stance on seeing educators receive higher pay, stating that their legislative agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session will seek to “pursue as a state policy the provision of a salary for teachers at least equal to the national average.”
“The average pay of teachers in the Commonwealth is now $7,230 under the national average, ranking us 30th in the nation,” VEA officials explained. “In eight of the past nine budgets of the Commonwealth, the state offered no designated funding to boost the pay of teachers and other Standards of Quality-funded positions.”
“To recruit and retain the best possible candidates, Virginia must be able to offer competitive salaries,” remarked the VEA, adding, “A strategic long-term approach is needed to begin the process of closing the gap.”
For Prince George, leaders point to the influx of advanced industry, such as Rolls Royce and the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, along with the Base Realignment and Closing Committee’s choice to expand nearby Fort Lee as examples of how Prince George Public School’s reputation of “high quality” schools and programs is leveraged to further expand the county’s, as well as the state’s, economy.
“You have prioritized state funding of ‘Standards of Quality’ requirements and you know that a quality education depends on recruiting the highest quality teachers,” the county’s letter closed.
The General Assembly returns to Richmond for their 2017 session on Jan. 11.
Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications