Years of understaffing have taken a toll on how Virginia oversees struggling local school divisions

Years of understaffing have taken a toll on how Virginia oversees struggling local school divisions
The Virginia Department of Education is headquartered in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Source: Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Staffing at the Virginia Department of Education is significantly lower than surrounding states in several key offices — and it’s taking a toll on the agency’s ability to help local school districts, including making sure that struggling systems meet state standards.

It’s an issue that hasn’t gotten much traction since a watchdog agency, the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, released a long-awaited report on VDOE earlier this week. But senior leadership at the department indicated that current staffing levels, largely dependent on funding from the state’s General Assembly, restricted some of the key recommendations in JLARC’s review.

“To do the level of independent verification requested in the report — it will take a significant amount of additional resources,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a presentation Monday, referencing a suggestion that VDOE begins independently confirming that local school divisions meet state-established educational standards.

Currently, the agency relies on local districts to self-report whether they meet Virginia’s Standards of Quality — requirements set by the state’s Board of Education that range from school maintenance to minimum staffing ratios between students and teachers.

The report found that the self-verification process fails to “fully verify compliance or monitor progress when corrective actions are needed.” But Virginia state code also “directs this self-certification approach in many cases,” according to the review, and the process has remained unchanged since at least 1991 when an earlier JLARC review found that “it is not clear whether DOE’s current activities are sufficient to ensure compliance with state standards.”

As with many of the issues identified in the report, JLARC suggested that state legislators should take a role in finding a solution. One policy recommendation was for the General Assembly to direct VDOE to implement a pilot program for a more comprehensive compliance review during the 2021-2022 school year. But it’s a suggestion that would likely require two new staff positions and additional funding for the agency — a tough request in a biennial budget cycle hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and a projected $2.7 billion budget shortfall.

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