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May 9, 2017

Demonstrated Harm: In Norfolk Public Schools

Reduced financial support has had very real impacts in Virginia classrooms. This includes Norfolk Public Schools where schools have to make hard choices like not filling vacancies, lagging in upkeep of school facilities, and cutting-back on instructional and after-school programs. All of this limits the ability of schools in Norfolk to help students learn and meet their unique needs.

These resource challenges stem from cuts to state support made during and after the recession when lawmakers diluted the state’s education funding formula. In the past couple years, lawmakers made important progress in starting to restore support for public education, yet this has only filled in about a quarter of the per student cuts in real dollars and they haven’t fixed the damage done to the formula during the recession.

For Norfolk Public Schools, the state has cut support by 15.3 percent per student since 2009 in real dollars. The City of Norfolk has increased per student support in an effort to preserve vital services for students, but has been unable to offset the severity of the state cuts.

Less money has meant fewer teachers and staff. Norfolk Public Schools has reduced their staffing by 504 positions – equal to a 9 percent reduction – since the cuts started in 2009. This includes cutting 306 teacher positions, 83 custodial staff, and 24 school counselors and librarians.

The impacts have been felt by staff and students.

Conversations with school staff illustrate some of these challenges. For example, Norfolk has made cuts to instructors that provide specialized one-on-one work with students. One teacher explained, “Those specialists are now going back into the classroom when we need them to do individualized work with kids,” said one teacher. “Kids aren’t getting as many resources on a consistent basis as they should be getting.”

These cuts also result in some instances in larger classes, which is problematic for Norfolk given large numbers of students that can require additional support. As one administrator says “Staffing is an issue. In urban environments…children most benefit when the numbers are smaller [in the classroom] …Our class size numbers are huge. [There are] 30-35 [students] in our core subjects…The recession and the cuts from the state have really resulted in us having higher class sizes and it is very difficult for teachers to meet the needs of students with those numbers.”

Norfolk has one of the higher poverty rates for school-aged children in the state with over 28 percent living in poverty. To put that in perspective, that’s an income under $25,000 for a family of four. These students face serious challenges that can make success in the classroom more difficult. They are more likely to have distractions in their home life, such as moving frequently, hunger, and parents coping with substance abuse. They are also less likely to be involved in organized activities that can foster positive social and mental development.

Meanwhile, Norfolk schools eliminated clubs and shortened after school programs. One teacher explains “there [were] multiple programs for the children to be involved in to bring about a higher level of learning. That’s all gone.”

The reduction of 83 custodial staff has also been very apparent. An administrator in Norfolk expressed concern about their ability to simply keep hallways clean. “You want the kids to go into a nice, clean environment. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have enough staff to…just literally clean …and do those things that keep the building up.” He said that custodial staff are forced to “hit the high spots” rather than doing a thorough cleaning of the facilities. Lack of upkeep has led to infestations of insects and rodents in some of the schools, including a problem with cockroaches in one of the cafeterias.

Similarly, one teacher explained that when it rains they have to place buckets “up and down the hallway…In our annex…most of [our tiles] are a brownish color and they are sinking and falling…And you can see water come down the walls, literally you can see the water.”

Every student in Virginia deserves a fair shot at success in the classroom and after they graduate. Limited staffing and deteriorating facilities is no way to prepare students and Virginia’s future workforce with the skills and competencies they need to thrive in the 21st century.

It’s time for lawmaker get serious and find the resources to grow opportunities for Virginia students.


Chris Duncombe

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