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Thousands of teachers and education advocates rallied at the Capitol in Richmond in January for better teacher pay and compensation.

School systems across Virginia have lost billions of dollars in state money for social workers, custodians and psychologists after the state imposed a funding cap on school support staffers amid the Great Recession.

The cap hasn't been lifted, even as the state rebounded in the years after the downturn, according to a report from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond think tank. As a result, the number of support staffers across the state dropped by 2,800 workers in the last decade while enrollment grew by 55,000 students.

The limit on state funding for support staff positions, which also include administrative workers and food service workers, was imposed in a moment of "extreme financial uncertainty" but has become an "assumed part of our budgeting process," said Chris Duncombe, the think tank's policy director, who co-wrote the report.

"A decade later, the recession has gone, revenues have recovered, yet the support cap continues to have detrimental impacts on our schools and kids," he said.

The report called on Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and lawmakers to remove the cap.

The Virginia Board of Education suggested similar action in 2016, but the General Assembly didn't act on the recommendation. The state board is weighing an identical proposal to ask lawmakers to lift the restriction as part of a larger set of revisions under consideration.

Virginia schools will receive $430 million less for support staff in the upcoming school year than in 2008-2009, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Commonwealth Institute.

The state's largest school system, Fairfax County Public Schools, will receive $9.6 million less in 2020 for school support workers than it did in 2009, after adjusting for inflation, according to the report. Public schools in Richmond, which educate about 25,000 students, will receive $8.7 million less. Rural Wise County will receive less than half the money it did a decade ago for support staffers, resulting in a $4.9 million decline.

All but two of Virginia's 132 school systems have lost money for support staff in the years since. Nearly 13,000 of those positions no longer receive state funding, forcing local governments to eliminate the jobs or pay for them with local dollars, the report says. Staffing levels have dropped more rapidly in Virginia systems with more students of color, according to the report.

The effects are felt even by workers whose positions were not capped, including school nurses, counselors and bus drivers, who must assume more responsibilities because there are fewer employees.

Counselors have become responsible for clerical duties, Duncombe said, leaving less time to work one on one with students to address trauma they may be experiencing or to help plan for college or work. Understaffed custodial crews prompt teachers to help maintain schools.

"Support positions are vital for addressing and improving challenges that are particularly felt by students from low-income families and students of color such as chronic absenteeism, high rates of suspensions and expulsions, and overall school climate," the report read.

Before the Great Recession, the state provided school systems money based on a formula it used to calculate typical levels of spending for support staff, according to the report. But in 2009, lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine agreed to include a cap on support staff money in the state budget.

As a result of the recession, the state devised a new ratio to determine how it would pay for those positions: for about every four instructional positions, such as teachers, the state has paid for one support staff role since the cap was introduced.

The Virginia Education Association, an alliance of educators, opposed the cap when it was proposed as part of the state budget in 2010 and has since fought to reverse it, said Kathy Burcher, the group's director of government relations and research.

Using the state's old formula to calculate how much it should provide for support staffs would free up local dollars for other expenses, such as wage increases, she said.

"It's time for our schools to fully recover from the recession," Burcher said.

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