From the Editor’s Desk: Virginia schools need answers, not delays

Published 12:23 am Friday, February 17, 2023

You can always tell when something’s not a priority. People give big speeches, we hear how much they care and promises get made. But they just never can find the time to actually make this thing a reality. Something always gets in the way. We see that now in Richmond, as the Assembly fights over the state budget and what to do about Virginia schools. 

You would think the announcement last month of a $201 million shortfall for schools, due to a state bookkeeping error, would be motivating enough to speed things up. Someone files a bill, requesting a one-time $201 million transfer from the state’s more than $3 billion rainy day fund, with part payable to districts this year and the rest coming in the fall. It would be a one-page bill, simple to read and easy to understand.

All the Assembly members nod knowingly, when the bill’s patron talks on the Senate floor about how important this is and we get a unanimous vote to push it to the governor, who signs it quickly, so we can give districts the stability they need. You’d think that would have been the scene in January when this problem was revealed, especially since so many Assembly members up for re-election talk about how important schools are to them. But no, that didn’t happen. Instead, we just get told to wait.  

The clock is ticking

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No emergency bills were filed to deal with the problem. Instead, the House and Senate decided since this was a money problem, it should get dealt with as part of the state’s budget negotiations. Oh joy. Now, to be clear, Virginia already has a state budget. But because it’s a month ending in y (and an election year), the Assembly wants to make amendments, adding to the budget. And so, they’ve attached the shortfall solution to the budget talks, as a way of getting more lawmakers to vote yes. 

There’s a few problems, however. The General Assembly is supposed to adjourn on Saturday, Feb. 25. No big deal, right? That’s more than a week away. But since the House and Senate budget amendments are significantly different, the two groups have to come to a compromise before any of those get voted on. How different? There’s $1 billion separating the Senate version from the House. And part of that involves the schools. 

The House version, for example, would give $90 million to schools for this current year, to cover the $58.1 million shortfall. Next year, however, it would only allocate $77 million for the remaining $143 million budget hole. The Senate version, however, fully covers the $201 million school budget shortfall over the two year period. And plus, there’s an extra $441 million Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to add in for schools, but both the House and Senate can’t agree on where that money would come from or how that would be spent.

What happens if the House and Senate can’t agree? The Assembly takes a recess for a couple months, the current budget stays in place until an agreement is in place and no action happens to fix the school shortfalls. 

How do you fix this problem? You appoint a group of Assembly members from the House and Senate to negotiate. 

Virginia schools need answers now

As I said, there’s a lot to talk about and little time. Those negotiators were just chosen on Tuesday and have no plans to meet this week, so I’m not exactly hopeful a deal gets done. Last year’s negotiations didn’t produce a budget until June 1.  

Specifically, I’m not hopeful because of what the lawmakers are saying. 

“I’m always hopeful we’ll settle it on time, but I’m prepared to sit here until July 1,” Sen. Janet Howell said in a statement on Tuesday. 

House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore seemed to agree. 

“Well, we’ve got a two-year budget in place,” he said Tuesday, talking with reporters after the day’s session. “We’d all like to see it amended. But if the Senate won’t join us, well, that’s where we are.” 

That’s it. No announcements that “we will take care of Virginia schools”, no declaration that “we are doing everything possible to get districts the money they need.” Even back in January, when journalists like myself reached out to the Virginia Department of Education, to ask about this shortfall we were hearing about, most were met with shrugs. “Hey, mistakes happen”, I was told by several staffers and a couple politicians. “It’s no big deal,” said another. 

Delaying a budget vote weeks, let alone months, puts our school districts in limbo. They can either spend based on the budget they have, and hope the state actually gives the money as promised, or they can cut back to the bare bones and deal with the consequences. It also makes crafting next year’s budget that much harder. 

But these same lawmakers will change their tune when the primary season starts up next month. They’ll say education is important and that they want Virginia schools to get every cent needed. But as I said, you can tell when something isn’t a priority.