Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Time to Reclaim Our Schools & Our Wallets

Our public schools are filled with amazing and inspirational stories of student success. I am so proud of everyone’s hard work, especially during these recent challenging financial times. Given the challenges of the new economy, however, our schools must continually improve, innovate, and evolve to ensure that every student succeeds and is prepared for college, careers, or life.

Our children will not compete against students from Maryland or North Carolina. Our students, our workers, and our businesses compete in a global economy. It is also why now, more than ever, it is time to eliminate state mandates that divert scarce funds and time from our mission to ensure a world-class education for every Virginian.

Today, the vast majority — nearly 1/3 — of all state mandates apply to public schools. That’s about to change.

This fall, the governor appointed a Task Force on Local Mandates, comprised of city and county leaders of which I am a part, to identify state mandates that were limit our ability to educate students and best serve taxpayers. The Virginia Association of Counties, Virginia Municipal League, Virginia School Boards Association, and Virginia Association of School Superintendents actively participated in the meetings and informed our work. Area school boards, City and County Boards of Supervisors, as well as our own Falls Church City and school staff, pitched-in to identify unnecessary state mandates. It was a statewide, team effort led by local leaders against a common enemy – unfunded state mandates and cost shifts to local taxpayers.
On January 16, the Task Force unanimously approved a first-cut of 61 state mandates to be eliminated and called for a 15% reduction in state paperwork on schools. In turn, Governor McDonnell proposed legislation to make our recommendations a reality. Now, the Virginia legislature has an unprecedented opportunity to vote to lift the burden on local taxpayers. Here are a few highlights of our work:

School Start Dates Must Be a Local Decision: For nearly three decades, public K-12 schools have sought to abolish the Labor Day Law or so-called “Kings Dominion Law” that prohibits schools from starting before Labor Day. This year, 77 of the 132 school divisions were allowed through a cumbersome, labor-intensive paperwork process to start school before Labor Day. Many more school divisions, including the City of Falls Church and Fairfax, want the academic freedom to start school as our community sees fit, but are prohibited from doing so.
Today, only Virginia and Michigan have such antiquated laws on the books. Much has changed in the nearly three decades since the passage of the Labor Day Law. This relic of the old economy is the definition of a burdensome, costly, outdated, and unnecessary state mandate. In fact, today, the Labor Day Law directly conflicts with Virginia’s economic and educational goals.

Today, the vast majority of all state mandates apply to public schools. That’s about to change.

Even State Senator Dick Saslaw, a long-time proponent of Labor Day law, indicated the time has come to fully repeal the law. The world has changed, we must change with it – this is the year to repeal the Labor Day Law and reclaim our school calendars.

State Paperwork is a Costly, Serious Problem: Each year, our schools must complete more than 75 state mandated education reports, some of which must be submitted multiple times per year. One particularly menacing burden, the “Master Schedule Data Collection”, is deeply concerning and costly to school divisions. Designed to report on teacher effectiveness, the report requires so much detailed information that in large school divisions, entire teams spend weeks filling out this one state report. In smaller school divisions, like ours, one staff member spends every minute of every day, for months, filling out this one state report and nothing else. State mandated paperwork is diverting precious time and money from serving students. As a result, the Task Force strongly recommended a 15% reduction in paperwork every year until 2014.

Virginia’s Retirement System Must Be Solvent, Payments Predictable: Finally, the integrity and solvency of the teacher retirement system is critical to attract and retain high-quality school staff. The largest unpredictable variable in our school’s budget is the VRS payment. Real work remains to make VRS payments predictable for teachers and taxpayers. Last minute changes by the state legislature wreak havoc on local budgets, which in many cases, must be finalized in April or May to complete contracts for the following year. Unexpected VRS rate changes can be the difference between hiring new staff or pink slipping an employee. It will be hard work to fix VRS, but our teachers and taxpayers deserve better.

The road to economic recovery, job creation, and good paying jobs for all Virginias in paved by a high-quality, educated citizenry. These remain challenging times to govern and resources are scarce, but by continuing to working together, we can ensure that every Virginia student succeeds and that our economy continues to grow.


Joan Wodiska is a member of the Falls Church City School Board, the president of the Virginia School Boards Association and vice-chairman of the Taskforce on Local Mandates.