Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is seeking 2 percent pay raises for public school teachers -- their first in five years -- provided Virginia lawmakers next month also make it easier for administrators to fire teachers deemed incompetent based on poor performance appraisals.
The governor announced Thursday he is budgeting nearly $59 million as the state's share of the raises in the midpoint revisions to the state government's two-year spending blueprint, which he presents Monday to the General Assembly.
McDonnell, a Republican, said the money will remain in the budget regardless of whether Congress and the White House are able to agree on deficit reductions and avoid a year-end "fiscal cliff" that could cripple Virginia's economy and similarly eat into state tax revenues.
McDonnell said raises for teachers, principals, teachers' aides, librarians and others are assured despite his announcement that he will reduce the official revenue estimate on which budgeted state spending is based.
"My two top priorities are K-12 education investment, support and reform, and secondly is transportation. Those are the two things that I think, if improved, will give Virginia excellence and opportunity," McDonnell said during a news conference. He was flanked by teachers, principals, elementary school children and a handful of legislators.
"We've made some changes in the budget," he said. "We've already ratcheted down revenue a little bit based on what we've heard from economists and on the fiscal cliff mess in Washington."
The House's Republican majority leader, Del. Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, said finding $59 million in a budget as austere as the one McDonnell has prepared was difficult.
"This is tough for this governor to come out with this kind of money in this budget," said Cox, who retired this year after a 30-year teaching career and wields enormous clout in writing state budgets as the No. 2 ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. Spending for his education package will be offset in part by savings and cuts recommended to him two weeks ago by state executive branch agency chiefs. The menu of cuts totals 4 percent, or nearly $132 million, McDonnell said.
Under McDonnell's proposals, local school divisions that want to provide pay raises for their teachers would have to provide a share of the 2 percent raises. The local match would be determined by a sliding scale based on something called the composite index, and would require affluent school divisions to pay a larger share than poorer ones.
But the raises are contingent on House and Senate approval of McDonnell's Education Fairness Act, which stretches the probationary period that rookie teachers would have to serve before being eligible for multi-year contracts from three years to five.
It eases the definition for incompetence by subjecting a teacher to penalties up to dismissal as a result of one or more unsatisfactory performance appraisals. It also streamlines the grievance procedure for teachers who wish to appeal an unfavorable decision.
Virginia Education Association president Meg Gruber was dubious about the proposal, saying 2 percent isn't nearly enough to make up for years of privations that teachers have endured, and wary about the criteria the state would adopt for judging teacher performance.
"You have to carefully analyze the legislation to make sure that it's being -- for lack of a better term -- open and honest legislation, that we really understand what the nuances are," said Gruber, whose organization represents more than 60,000 public school teachers statewide.