Teacher pay hike throws off Rockbridge schools’ budget

By Sophie Kidd

The Rockbridge County School Board thought it had come up with a budget for the coming fiscal year—and the county’s supervisors even approved it Tuesday. But there is uncertainty because of a state mandate requiring pay increases for teachers.

“It’s a moving target all the time,” Superintendent Philip Thompson said, “and we don’t know how many students we’re going to have in August, which positions we’ll have to fill, which teachers are going to retire. There are so many unanswered questions it makes it difficult to be precise.”

Gov. Ralph Northam originally proposed a mandated 3 percent increase in teacher’s salaries in 2022, with no increase in 2021.

But the General Assembly altered Northam’s proposal, requiring teachers to receive a 2 percent salary increase in 2021 and again in 2022.

Thompson said the state provides funding for salary increases for certain positions under what are called Standards of Quality.

The Standards of Quality determine the number of teachers needed to satisfy the state’s minimum teacher-to-student ratio. Additional positions created by school divisions are not considered in state funding.

Northam also set a goal to increase funding for early education. Rockbridge County will receive enough extra funding to nearly double the slots for pre-kindergarten students, to 67 from 36.

But the state moved money around to do it, Thompson said.

“Early childhood education is a great thing and I support it wholeheartedly. The problem is when he put more money in it, he just moved the money from one place to another,” he said.

In Rockbridge, the schools often struggle to fill all 36 slots. The schools lose the state funding for unfilled slots.

The school division covers the cost of paying for teachers, buses, and meals at its pre-schools.

Virginia has also mandated an increase in employer contributions to the Virginia Retirement System and Group Life Insurance and Health Care Credit.

This year, the state will provide less aid to Rockbridge because it is now considered more capable of funding its own schools. The county’s ability to pay is determined by property values, adjusted gross income, taxable retail sale, and total school division population in the county.

The number of students at county schools has dropped since last year, which means less funding from the state.

The division has previously said that it would like to add more instructional coaches to supplement its Project Base Learning initiative, which promotes engaged learning activities with the Rockbridge community. It also wants to provide technology assistants to help instructors at the high school with tech integration.

The future of the budget now is unclear. But Thompson said he knows what he’ll tell the supervisors.

“The only thing that’s non-negotiable is the mandated things,” he said. “Everything else is needs. From my perspective, none of them are negotiable. But if they ask me what we absolutely have to have to operate, I have to say the mandates.”