Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) wrote a letter to retired teachers asking them to consider taking jobs in the school system in the city of Petersburg, wich is struggling to fill vacancies. (Steve Helber/AP)

The city of Petersburg has had a rough year. From government officials being ousted under a cloud to creditors repossessing fire department equipment during a budget crisis, it’s been one discouraging blow after another.

Now the Virginia school system is struggling to find 22 teachers to fill vacancies. With a cloud hanging over even basic services such as trash pickup, and with a school system beset by challenges and low graduation rates, it’s hard to keep teachers in Petersburg.

So Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has stepped in with an extraordinary plea for help.

In letters that went out last week, McAuliffe asked 539 retired teachers from around the Petersburg area to consider going back to work in the city’s schools. Under a little-known state law passed in 2001, retired teachers can return to service in areas of need and still draw their pensions while being paid.

That law was aimed at subject areas that can be hard to staff with qualified teachers, subjects such as math and science. This may be the first time it has been aimed at a particular locality, said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

The law “incentivizes knowledgeable and experienced educators like you to return to the classroom and teach in schools that desperately require your expertise, insight, and talents,” McAuliffe wrote. “The students and schools of Petersburg need exactly the kind of experience and expertise you have to offer as a veteran teacher.”

To the Virginia Education Association, though, the predicament is yet another example of how tough it is to recruit and retain high-quality teachers throughout the state.

“Ultimately, this points to a much broader problem that Virginia has,” said Jim Livingston, a middle school math teacher from Prince William County and president of the VEA. “We’re 36th in the nation in per-pupil funding and 30th in the nation in average teacher salary. Salaries in Virginia have not kept pace with the demand, with the increased workload, with the challenge — not just in Petersburg but across the commonwealth.”

The average teacher in Virginia makes about $52,000, which is about $7,200 less than the national average, Livingston said. But that statewide number obscures the disparities among districts. In wealthy Fairfax, for instance, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 30 years of experience earns about $87,400. In Petersburg, that same teacher would make about $53,400, according to the VEA.

“Quite honestly, people are looking for other jobs,” Livingston said. He said a recent survey in Loudoun County found that even in that wealthy locality, more than half of the teachers held second jobs out of necessity.

Livingston said that the organization supports any effort to help Petersburg students get qualified teachers but that there must be a better long-term answer.

“The VEA has called on the governor and the General Assembly to develop a long-range plan for addressing the salary issue for teachers and school employees to bring them up to at least the national average,” he said.

The situation in Petersburg, though, is urgent. The city has so much trouble finding qualified teachers that last year 15 percent of its teachers had only provisional licenses. That is significantly above the rate in other districts; last year in Prince William County, for instance, only 5 percent of teachers had provisional licenses.

Next year the governor plans to issue a similar letter for another struggling school district: the city of Richmond’s.