The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, January 26, 2006

State budget amendments tackle teachers, schools, crime; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Schools and sex offenders. Museums and moratoriums. It’s budget amendment time at the Capitol.

Former Gov. Mark R. Warner introduced his last two-year budget to legislators in December, and delegates and senators had until last week to give their suggestions on how to change it.

Legislative staffers have now processed all those requests, and money committees on both sides of the Patrick Henry Building will give each the once-over before coming up with a final two-year spending plan.

Among the amendments are more than $26 million worth of changes over two years to fund a crackdown on sex offenders, supported by Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

Del. Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester, is one of the legislators helping McDonnell’s agenda through the House of Delegates.

It’s not cheap, but Virginia has to tighten its tracking of sex offenders, he said. To that end, McDonnell is backing legislation that will require mandatory electronic tracking for three years to life upon release.

“The courts will have the option, depending on the offender, of using either active or passive [Global Positioning System] tracking,” he said. “Active technology would cost a lost a more, but it gives authorities much more information.”

For high-risk offenders, the system would allow law enforcement to look at a screen and see where a sex offender is at any time. McDonnell is also behind bills that would toughen enforcement of sex-offender registration.

“We realize that the price tag of these reforms overall is about $33 [million] or $34 million over the biennium, which is significant,” McDonnell said.

But he added that he and legislators are “looking for ways to cut the costs. We need to do that. It’s a hefty price tag, but those discussions are still ongoing about modifications to the bill.”

Other amendments offered by the local delegation would get public school systems in Winchester, along with those in Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Rappahannock counties, included in the Northern Virginia “cost of competing” district.

Systems in that area get an extra amount of money from the state to help them recruit and retain teachers in the fast-growing, high-demand labor market.

Sherwood, along with Dels. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, and Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, have all introduced amendments to get local systems into the region. If successful, the valley schools would get anywhere from $1 million to $4 million more from the state each year over and above any other increases.

This isn’t the first effort to get Warren County into the Northern Virginia “cost of competing” adjustment, Warren County Superintendent Pam McInnis said.

As more and more denizens of Northern Virginia move out to the distant exurbs for lower costs of living, they bring with them a demand for top-notch schools, she said.

And there’s a giant educational black hole just to the north that pulls in teachers like a vacuum cleaner.

“Loudoun [County] is needing 700 new teachers for next year,” McInnis said, recalling a presentation at a superintendents’ meeting Wednesday. With a salary scale that starts at $42,000 and is likely to top out at around $83,000 this year, keeping up with Loudoun is all but impossible, she said.

“We have some teachers — we don’t have the number that Frederick does — but we have a fair number of teachers that will go toward that more Northern Virginia area,” she said.

The Loudoun County teacher conveyer reaches all the way to Woodstock and points south, said Shenandoah County Superintendent H.D. Northern.

“We’re on the outlying area of that, but it certainly impacts us,” he said.

When teachers in Winchester, Frederick or Clarke head for greener pastures, teachers in places such as Shenandoah County often move north to fill the gap, Northern said.

Getting teachers in classrooms is no mean feat anymore.

“It’s hard to accomplish that very thing,” he said. “We spend all year recruiting. We go to five or six states, job fairs, universities, just to generate the number of applications that we need.”

Higher “salary would help us tremendously,” he added.

Both superintendents said the extra money would be welcome, but they’re not convinced it’s on the way.

“We would put it to good use,” McInnis said.

“But I’m not going to spend it yet,” Northern said.