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Virginia Teachers Rally For More State Funding, Higher Teacher Pay

A group of Giles County teachers traveled to Richmond to advocate to higher teacher salaries.
A group of Giles County teachers traveled to Richmond on Sunday to advocate to higher teacher salaries Monday. Louise Ricks/WCVE News

Thousands of teachers from across Virginia poured into Capitol Square Monday to rally for more money for things like higher teacher pay, support staff and school construction.

They came from as far as Giles County, just across the border from West Virginia. Julie Sargent has worked as a teacher there for 18 years. Her take-home pay is $29,000 a year.

“I haven't had a pay raise for 10 years,” said Sargent. “And how are we supposed to, you know, supply for our families? I've got a child now in college.”

Gloria Hurt has been teaching in the county for over 20 years.

“And everybody says, well, you knew you weren't going to get rich when you went into teach in school,” Hurt said. “That's true. But I didn't realize that I would be, you know, not able to have a surgery when I need it or not be able to provide for my family.”

The state and county share responsibility for funding public schools, and teacher pay across Virginia. But the state’s share of that funding has fallen about nine percent - when adjusted for inflation - over the past decade. That’s according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. The state has also received an F for funding distribution from the Education Law Center.

That leaves a lot of school funding up to cities and counties, where money is often very tight.

“Local governments are pretty much hamstrung by the ways they can raise taxes, especially in rural areas,” said Republican Del. James Edmunds from Virginia’s Halifax County. The school division there is trying to fund a new high school. Edmunds has introduced legislation that would allow school divisions to hold a referendum to ask voters if they’d support raising local sales taxes to help pay for school facilities.

“In Halifax County, one percent added to our sales tax creates about $3 million a year,” Edmunds said. “And a lot of that is actually out of the county tourism, and people passing through.”

The bill has advanced, but has been modified to apply only to Halifax County. Jessica Rose Hayes is a special education teacher in the district.

“It’s like a $10,000 pay increase to drive 15 minutes away and go work for a North Carolina school,” Hayes said. “And, you’re a state employee there.”

Her take-home pay this past year: $35,000. She wants lawmakers to use the state pocketbook to show how much they respect teachers and the profession of teaching.

“When people ask you what do you do, and I say I teacher special education...they say, well, oh... you have your summers off," Hayes said. "I’m thinking to myself, oh my goodness. You have no idea. You have no idea.”

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras marched alongside teachers like Hayes from Monroe Park to the steps of the state Capitol.

“And I think they're right,” Kamras said in an interview with WCVE last week. “They deserve more. They do really, really important work.”

Kamras has committed to funding the local share of a 5 percent salary increase for teachers in Richmond next year, on top of step increases.

“So what we want to do is have teachers be able to rely on a year over year step increase, which in essence is a cost of living adjustment,” Kamras said. “It's very small. We're talking maybe a 1.2 percent increase that is separate from a raise which would sort of lift the whole pay scale up.”

The local match might be a harder lift for places like Halifax and Giles Counties. According to a 2018-2019 teacher salary survey from the Virginia Department of Education, they didn’t propose any teacher pay raises this year.

Meanwhile, teachers in Virginia aren’t walking out…yet. Instead, they’re waiting to see if House Republicans keep the promise made Monday on the House floor to include a 5 percent teacher pay increase in the state budget. 

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia