Virginia educators are back again in Richmond today for a second annual rally for more school funding. (Virginia Education Association)

By Brandon Martin

While gun-right advocates garnered a lot of attention for their rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Richmond, they are far from the only ones storming the streets of the state Capitol to lobby legislators.

On Jan. 27, educators from across the Commonwealth also marched in Richmond to call on lawmakers to increase state funding for public education.

According to the Virginia Education Association, the state ranks 32nd in teacher pay and 40th in state-spending per pupil. This compares to the state ranking 13th in gross domestic product.

The average salary for a teacher in Virginia is $51,994, with the average salary falling to $45,514 in Martinsville and $50,930 for Henry County, based on a report of the fiscal year (FY) 2019 actual average salaries by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). Teachers in these localities are paid $6,480 and $1,064 less than the state average while the state lags behind the national average by $8,500.

At a Jan. 28 Henry County Board of Supervisors meeting, both the president and vice-president of the Henry County Education Association (HCEA) asked the board to help get area teachers back on “step.”

Teachers earn a step increase for each additional year of experience, with many teachers peaking with the highest step at around age 55.

Sybil Landreth, vice-president for HCEA and a teacher at Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School, tied the salary issue to general school funding problems, saying that many construction projects are the reason salaries “lagged behind.”

“Did teachers and other educators lose money,” she asked rhetorically. “Not exactly; instead, their salaries remained stagnant and they did not gain steps or cost of living increases as they should have.”

She added that some years were accompanied with small raises but not enough to cover the amount lost from being out of step.

Dorothy Carter, president of the Henry County Education Association (HCEA), addresses the Henry County Board of Supervisors about teacher pay. (Brandon Martin)

HCEA President Dorothy Carter said that repairs were needed for the Bassett High School roof and renovations at Magna Vista High School but they did “object to taking from teacher’s salaries to make capital improvements.”

Carter also explained how the loss due to stagnant steps affects teachers along their career projection. She said during the first ten years of employment, teachers are losing between $368-1,100 per year. The number is over $1,000 a year between years 11-14 and over $2,289 by year 15. Teachers that have worked for 28 years  would lose $3,890 a year.

Landreth said  by holding teachers back on the salary scale, that Henry County Public Schools “benefited in order to complete projects they wanted to do while dishonoring the salary expectations under which teachers were hired.”

The amount that local tax payers are contributing to schools in Henry County and Martinsville widely differs. Out of 134 school divisions, the county ranks 115th in local contributions and the city ranks 11th. The state determines their contribution through the use of a local composite index (LCI).

According to a study by S. John Davis and Associates, Ltd., “nearly all direct state aid, including state basic aid, is distributed to local school divisions through use of the LCI.”

This is seen as a problem for Martinsville-Henry County, which currently sits near the bottom of school divisions in terms of LCI, with Martinsville ranked 131st and Henry County ranked 127th.

Assistant City Manager Eric Monday, who also is the city attorney, listed the steady decline in population as having an adverse effect on schools.

“Over the last decade, the student population has declined by almost over 600 students,” he said. “The loss of each student means a corresponding loss in the amount of money that they get from the state in return. Declining population is a very serious thing from the standpoint of school funding and I’m sure as the council is aware of from the last budget cycles, the schools look to the cities, when they get a smaller check from Richmond, for you to make up the difference.”

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed more than $1 billion in spending for new K-12 education, including a three percent raise for teachers as well as more money for struggling schools.

Some education advocates are asking for even more money, including a five percent raise, saying the governor’s efforts aren’t currently enough to make up for the years of neglected funding towards schools.

“While we can’t make up for decades of underfunding in one budget cycle, the governor’s budget is a strong step in the right direction,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.

According to Landreth, the county schools did receive a five percent salary increase from the state but teachers “only received 3.5 percent.”

The increase does allow for a step raise, she said, but “when it was the perfect time to recover one or two more steps, the scale remained stagnant with teachers still lagging three steps behind.”