By Evie King
On highway overpasses on Interstates 95 and 64, more than a dozen teachers signaled to members of the Virginia General Assembly their top priority by holding up 14 foam boards with Christmas lights spelling out “fund our schools.”
Educators from Richmond Public Schools and a statewide coalition called Virginia Educators United displayed the signs Tuesday night ahead of the legislative session that started Wednesday.
“Legislators are coming into the city tonight to start session tomorrow, and we want to make sure they know, as they come in, what it is we care about,” said Sarah Pedersen, a history teacher at Binford Middle School in Richmond.
Pedersen said she and her husband, both public school teachers, truly love their work, but living on teacher salaries has put a lot of strain on the couple’s family planning.
Now raising their 1-year-old daughter and envisioning having more children, Pedersen said it’s hard to imagine how her family could grow with their current salaries.
“It breaks my heart to think that my daughter might end up being an only child because we cannot afford to have the family that we always dreamt we would,” she said.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, the average teacher salary in Virginia is $56,861, falling short of the national average by nearly $2,000. Starting pay for Richmond Public Schools teachers with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000, according to the school division.
Holding the sign for an “o” in the word “school,” fellow RPS teacher Aaron Garber said he looks forward to working only one job instead of two to make ends meet. After a full day of teaching preschool at Linwood Holton Elementary, Garber said he often works construction and home repair jobs in the evenings or on the weekends.
“Which if I actually switched to full-time, I would make more money than I do as a teacher,” Garber said. “But I just love teaching. I love working with kids. It’s as simple as that.”
Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2019 budget proposal includes $268.7 million in new educational funding, $88 million of which would go toward a 5 percent teacher pay increase. Northam said the pay raise would help curb teacher turnover rates and improve retention. If approved, it would be the largest single-year pay increase in 15 years.
Keri Treadway, a teacher at William Fox Elementary in Richmond, said she is optimistic about Northam’s K-12 proposals but thinks there is room for further legislative action. “Vote yes, but find the rest,” Treadway said, smiling as she summed up the group’s energy with a pithy catchphrase.
With crumbling facilities, teacher vacancies and accreditation issues plaguing schools in Richmond and many other localities, Pederson echoed the optimism for the governor’s proposals. But she said the issues were more expensive than what Northam’s proposal would cover.
“I don’t know how to give that soul transplant for a legislator who doesn’t understand that their constituents want a fully funded future for our kids,” Pedersen said. “But we are prepared to make that picture much brighter and much more clear in November. We will vote [lawmakers] out.”
Virginia Educators United plans to march to the Virginia Capitol on Jan. 28.