School districts plan as Assembly adjourns without full budget

Published 4:36 pm Monday, February 27, 2023

CUMBERLAND – We still don’t have a permanent answer for the $201 million school funding shortfall. Now it looks like a solution could take more time to arrive. On Thursday, Feb. 23, the Virginia House of Delegates adjourned for this session without taking a vote on the state budget, leaving school districts still waiting. The Senate followed two days later, adjourning “sine die” on Saturday, Feb. 25. Sine die means “with no appointed date to return”.

Now on the one hand, the Assembly did create a “stop-gap” budget before adjourning, one to keep things going until they reach an agreement on the proposed amendments.  That plan includes $132.7 million total for schools in the current year and $125.8 million for the next year. But district officials argue they can’t rely on that for a budget, because if or when a new agreement is reached, this one goes out the window.

So what now? Each district is making their own decision, when it comes to crafting a new budget. Some, like Buckingham County, have decided to build a budget assuming that they won’t get the money to address the shortfall. 

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“We are planning to have to absorb the (state) error,” Buckingham Superintendent Dr. John Keeler said. “We are building a conservative budget but remain hopeful that some relief will come once the General Assembly agrees on a final budget.”

Buckingham is projected to lose $116,000 this year and $287,000 in fiscal year 2024, due to the state error.

Cumberland County Schools, meanwhile, will lose $76,000 this year and $187,000 for next year in state funding, if the shortfall isn’t addressed. Cumberland Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones said the district, like all the others, has to make one plan now and then will likely have to adjust it later. 

“We are basing our budget off of the Governor’s 2022-2024 Amended Budget that was released in December,” Jones said. “Like everyone, we are waiting for the final budget to be released. When it is released, we will have to revisit our budget.” 

Prince Edward County, meanwhile will lose $131,000 in fiscal year 2023 and $325,000 in fiscal year 2024.  We reached out to the district officials for comment, but had no response by presstime. 

Where did the school shortfall come from?

What are we talking about when we say shortfall or state error? From the end of Gov. Ralph Northam’s term to the beginning of Gov. Youngkin’s, there has been a push to get rid of the state’s grocery tax. That finally happened last year, removed as part of budget negotiations. Here’s where the problem comes in. Multiple members of the Assembly had said the schools would be “held harmless”, that is the state would find another source to give them the $201 million over two years it was taking away. That promise never ended up on paper, however. In the final budget signed in June 2022, there was no alternative source for that funding to come from. 

And so, the state had $201 million less than before to give schools. But the Department of Education also made an accounting error. Each year, they give districts a budget tool, a mathematical formula that helps the district’s staff determine how much each district would receive from the state over the next two years. The department didn’t account for the loss of the $201 million, so their tool gave incorrect numbers. 

The districts then used that incorrect information to set up their budgets, plan, pay for salaries and make repairs. That’s where we get the school shortfall. 

What’s the difference? 

Now we mentioned the “stop gap” budget currently in place. Where do the Virginia House and Senate stand on a permanent solution? The money is included in both the Virginia House and Senate versions of the budget, but it’s in different amounts. The House version, for example, would give $90 million for this current year, to cover the $58.1 million shortfall. Next year, however, it would only allocate $77 million for the remaining $111 million budget hole.

The Senate version, however, fully covers the $201 million total budget shortfall over the two year period. And plus, there’s an extra $441 million Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to add for schools, but both the House and Senate still have to debate how that would be spent, if they agree to add it.

Can the Assembly return? 

So what happens now? The House and Senate assigned budget negotiators earlier this month. That group will continue to try and reach a permanent compromise. Once that happens, the House and Senate can come back into session and take a vote. But this isn’t a quick solution for the school shortfall. 

First, the governor will need to call the Assembly back for a special session.  Then each lawmaker must receive a copy of the full budget. Under state law, the budget has to be given to lawmakers 48 hours before a vote takes place. And because the school funding has been attached to the overall budget, we won’t see a vote on the first piece until the entire package is agreed to. 

In a statement released after the full Assembly adjourned, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he was happy with what had already been accomplished in this year’s session, but there was more to be done.

“I’m pleased with the efforts we’ve made to protect Virginia farmland from our foreign adversaries, reform occupational licensing to expand worker freedom, realign our workforce development pipeline, bolster school resource officers, make a strong stand against antisemitism, and take care of our veterans,” Youngkin said. “I stand ready to work with the general assembly as we finalize a budget.”

Both sides have said they want to avoid a similar situation to last year. In 2022, the budget wasn’t agreed on and signed by the governor until June.