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Local legislators offer key takeaways from state budget

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The Virginia General Assembly wrapped up its 46-day 2017 session Saturday, but not before budget conferees agreed on a $107 billion state budget, a portion of which will boost funding for the Halifax County School System.

Halifax County School Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon said she had a conference call with budget conferee Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason on Friday concerning the additional school funding and was assured the county school division had done all that was necessary to receive funding to cover a 2 percent pay raise given to employees in the fall.

According to Herndon, the state budget provides $32 million for salary increases that will cover the 2 percent raise given to county teachers in the current budget cycle.

Last year, the state had promised money for the raises but withdrew it after the state’s revenue forecast a $1.26 billion shortfall. But the school board had already approved the raise employees began to receive in the fall.

Out of the 135 counties in the state, 123 school divisions went ahead and gave the 2 percent raise despite the state reneging on its promised funding, including Halifax County.

The newly approved K-12 education budget also includes lottery funds that will boost the local school budget.

According to Del. James Edmunds, “The House remains committed to providing public schools with the resources they need to ensure children succeed.”

Last year, the adopted budget sent 29 percent of lottery funds, or $157 million, back to local school divisions. This mechanism gives local schools more flexibility by not requiring matching local funds or mandating how the funds must be spent.

State dollars sent to local schools from the lottery are able to be used for teacher pay raises should the local school board allocate it for that method, Edmunds said.

While revenue triggers last year prohibited the state funding its portion of teacher raises, all but 12 of Virginia's 135 school districts provided their teachers with raises, the delegate said.

“This year's adopted budget exceeds the governor's investment in K-12 education by more than $18 million. We are investing $15 million for direct aid to public education and build on our lottery investment by sending $191 million, or 35 percent of lottery funds, back to localities with no strings attached.

“Additionally, we've secured $32 million for a 2 percent teacher pay raise, with no local match required, effective February 2018.”

Edmunds explained the budget also establishes a plan to support smaller school divisions with declining enrollment. This will send an additional $7.3 million to rural schools.

“Now that the budget has been finalized, we have final figures for proceeds for funds from the lottery and from the rural school fund,” he said.

In 2017 (through June 30) Halifax County will receive $356,415 from the rural school fund.

Campbell County is slated to receive $356,831; Charlotte $139,455; and Prince Edward $247,748.

In addition to the county’s lottery PPA, Halifax County also will receive $161,343 for fiscal year 2017-2018.

Campbell County will get $272,933; Charlotte County $65,787; and Prince Edward County $68,717.

Sen. Frank Ruff pointed out legislators were able to add $1.3 million for the schools in the 15th Senate District.

“This was because of a steeply declining population of five of our school systems. Each of those counties would have rather had a growing school age population than those dollars because if their population had remained the same they would have received more by the state’s education formula, but that was not the case,” he added.

The agreed upon House Senate budget was worked out as fair as possible considering that Virginia's economy has not grown as the administration had expected last year, Ruff said.

“The General Assembly worked diligently to balance the competing issues before us. To avoid the miscalculation of the state's growth as on the last budget, the House agreed with the Senate's position of holding some funds in reserve. That amount of $35 million will protect raises rather than risking what happened last year.

“The Senate insisted and convinced the House that a 2 percent raise was better for our teachers and college professors than the 1.5 percent bonus the governor had proposed,” Ruff added.

In addition to the state budget increasing local school funding, Edmunds and Ruff pointed to other key takeaways from the state budget including the following:

  • The conference budget is a conservative, responsible, and structurally-balanced budget; general fund spending has decreased by 5 percent over 10 years when adjusted for population and inflation.
  • Exceeds the governor's investment in K-12 education by approximately $18 million while increasing flexibility for local schools and reducing tax burden on local government;
  • Invests in higher education by reducing the governor's cuts by $20 million;
  • Makes strategic and targeted investments in economic development while emphasizing accountability and oversight;
  • Funds a comprehensive package to combat domestic violence, including additional funding for prevention, treatment and counseling services;
  • Builds on previous efforts to strengthen the health care safety net, creating new additional waiver slots and expands access to mental health services; and
  • Invests in Virginia's hardworking state employees by providing a 3 percent pay raise and invests in our State Police by providing a salary increase.

Lastly, a few other initiatives Edmunds said are being funded by the General Assembly this year include a career and technical education vocational laboratory pilot that will focus on an advanced manufacturing and virtual reality related education experience, College Partnership Schools that allow public K-12 schools to benefit from resources at higher education institutions that wouldn't be otherwise available to them, and summer school partnerships between school divisions and the Virginia Alliance of YMCAs to enhance summer school learning and retention.

Another bill Edmunds co-patroned this year is HB 1656 that would provide health insurance coverage for proton therapy treatment.

He explained proton treatment has been proven to be more effective than other treatments.

“My district has a high concentration of cancer, and I feel that this bill will help many people overcome this disease,” Edmunds said, adding this bill has an emergency clause which means it will take effect immediately upon passage.

Ruff pointed to a state budget amendment he offered that restored the funding the governor cut for coyote control.

“He apparently does not understand the damage that is being done as these predators roam rural areas of our state,” Ruff said.

Another amendment addressed the governor's raid of reforestation funds. This is an assessment on the forestry industry that was established, not as a tax, but rather to create incentive funds to encourage landowners to re-plant as quickly as practical, while they have the funds from the sale of timber – the goal being to not let the land lay idle.

“Replanting hastens the economic cycle and protects our waters by reducing erosion,” the senator said.

“Thankfully, the House did win one. That amendment offered by the governor would have raised food inspection fees from $40 to over $500 for some stores. The Senate was delighted to join the House to eliminate this major regulatory fee increase,” he said.

“Again, considering the economy, this is a good budget,” Ruff concluded.

From The Gazette-Virginian

Tagged in: budget education