Lottery likely path for school funding as legislators look for state employee raises

Image: BOB BROWN/times-Dispatch

Posted: Monday, January 23, 2017 10:30 pm

“We’re Game for Education!” the Virginia Lottery proclaims at its display booth in the General Assembly Building.

Lottery profits may be the game for Virginia lawmakers working on a revised state budget that helps local schools without necessarily providing money for teacher pay raises that most school divisions already have given.

The budget already includes an additional $157.2 million in per-student funding for local school divisions in the next fiscal year — all lottery money that would not require local matching funds — and more could be coming.

“I would see us adding to what they currently have,” House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said in an interview Monday.

Earlier in the day, teachers from across Virginia held a boisterous rally outside a House committee room to demand that the state pay its share of the 2 percent raise that was promised and withdrawn last year in the face of a revenue shortfall now projected at $1.26 billion.

“It’s time to bridge the gap in state funding!” shouted Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association, to a thick crowd of teachers who were gathered early Monday morning just around the corner from the lottery display.

Livingston, a middle school teacher from Prince William County, delivered a letter Monday to Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, to demand that the state “do your part, hold up your end of the bargain, and provide state support for a teacher salary increase.”

“The localities have done more than their fair share,” he said.

Norment, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, declined to respond to the letter Monday, as the assembly money committees work to address the dominant issue of the General Assembly session — compensation for public employees.

“We’re hoping to work out a resolution,” said Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Norment.

While legislators have made it a priority to restore a 3 percent raise to state employees that also was eliminated last year, only one, Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr., R-Mecklenburg, has proposed to amend the budget to provide a raise for teachers.

Ruff’s proposed amendments would give a 3 percent raise to teachers instead of the 1.5 percent one-time bonus Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed. The proposal would cost about $127 million, or roughly $72 million more than the governor’s proposed bonus.

Teachers weren’t part of the amendment proposed in the House of Delegates by Del. Charles D. Poindexter, R-Franklin County, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on compensation and retirement. It would restore raises that had been planned last year for state employees and state-supported local employees, such as sheriff’s deputies and other constitutional officers. His amendment would include about $91 million, on top of the money proposed by the governor for one-time bonuses.

Jones noted that all but a dozen or so local school divisions still gave teachers a 2 percent raise after the state suspended its $346.3 million compensation package for public employees, which had been tied to revenue performance in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

“They chose to proceed,” he said.

Tom Smith, lobbyist for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said most school divisions gave the raise because they were already obligated under teacher contracts before the state confirmed the shortfall and canceled the raises.

“Once we start raises at the beginning of the (fiscal) year, either you give it the rest of the year or you have to change the contract to take it away,” Smith said.

One of the localities that did not give the raise was Dickenson County, in far Southwest Virginia. The school division did not pay the raise after the state canceled its share, said Larry Barton, finance director for the Dickenson school system.

“If the state had not done that, we would have given the raise,” Barton said.

The state decision brought Phyllis Mullins, a seventh-grade civics teacher in Dickenson, more than 350 miles to Richmond early on Monday to advocate for the state’s share of a teacher pay increase.

“With the economic situation the way it is in the coalfields, we’re desperate,” said Mullins, who has been a teacher for 27 years.

But the House, at least, is not likely to provide money in the budget to pay the state’s share of raises that already have been given.

“That would set a terrible precedent — we shouldn’t do that,” said Jones, who added that schools will get much of the money back when the state updates costs under the Standards of Quality in the next budget.

Instead, the committee is looking to build on a new approach that it pushed last year to increase per-student funding for school divisions through the lottery, without requiring them to match with local funds as they do under the Standards of Quality.

“We want to help our schools, but we don’t want to put a burden on them,” said Robert P. Vaughn, staff director of the Appropriations Committee.

In Dickenson, the lottery money is welcome, Barton said. “It really helps as far as the match. Our locality is really strapped for cash.”