‘We need to fund people’: Chesterfield School Board sets sights on staffing shortage

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CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — Members of the Chesterfield County School Board, state legislators and Superintendent Merv Daugherty met Tuesday night to lay out priorities for the county as the Virginia General Assembly prepares to convene under a new administration.

The topic that dominated the night’s conversation was the perennial concern of school divisions across the commonwealth: funding.

Teaching Doesn’t Pay

Chesterfield, like many localities across the nation, has been struck by a shortage of staff in every area of the school system, from teachers and counselors to bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

School board members pointed to chronically low pay and a lack of new teachers, saying they faced difficulties convincing teachers to come to Virginia for un-competitive rates.

According to a study from the Commonwealth Institute, a non-partisan research organization based in Richmond, Virginia has the tenth-highest median income in the country but ranks 41st in per-pupil spending – over $3,000 below the national average.

That funding gap effects teacher pay – Virginia was ranked as the worst state for teacher pay in 2021. Even though many states have lower average teacher salaries than Virginia, researchers found that because average wages in general – and the cost of living – were so much higher in Virginia, teachers were actually comparatively worse off than in other places.

School Board member Debbie Bailey said she hoped they could find funding to offer higher salaries, “The more attractive we can make the job opportunities in Chesterfield, the more attractive we’ll be to them.”

A report from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) shows that Chesterfield did temporarily boost teacher pay in 2019 by 10%, giving teachers a raise from $49,174 to $55,677. That put teachers in Chesterfield above the state average of $53,933.

But the pay didn’t last. State statistics show average pay in 2020 dropped 10% to $50,070, indicating the high pay was more akin to a one-time bonus than a sustainable raise.

The Board’s presentation to legislators called for more state support for teacher pay, emphasizing the need for “increasing public education’s share of the state budget to support innovation, teacher salaries and retirement costs.”

Senator Ghazala Hashmi, who sits on the senate’s education committee, said she would use the session to advance measures to increase the number of teachers entering the workforce, including student debt relief for public school teachers and subsidies for students seeking degrees in education.

Show Me the Money

One program touted by Superintendent Daugherty was the county’s virtual learning program. While the remote learning option, like many in area school divisions, faced a rocky reception early on, it was lauded by school board members earlier this year as a success story.

“Students that were having trouble in school were excelling in the virtual world,” Daugherty said.

He said he sees the opportunity to alleviate some aspects of the teacher shortage by supplementing in-class instruction with virtual sessions. That’s a program the school division has already started using for some math classes, citing a severe shortage of qualified instructors.

“We have so many kids so far behind across the commonwealth,” said Delegate Carrie Coyner, pointing to learning losses as a result of the pandemic. She said she would propose legislation requiring stricter standards for the quality of online learning options, based on “scientific methods.”

That raised concerns from Superintendent Daugherty and members of the board. A point of frustration has been so-called “unfunded mandates” – directives from the General Assembly or VDOE that require local school divisions to implement policies but don’t provide state funding to carry them out.

“A lot of legislation comes through the system,” Daugherty said. “We would appreciate if funding came with it.”

When asked whether her proposal would come with funding, Coyner assured the board, “It does. We will also be submitting a budget item along with it.”

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