From the Editor’s Desk: There’s a lot of pointing & a lot of promising

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Farmville Herald editorThe biggest problem isn’t about this year’s school budget. Yes, it’s annoying to deal with, right in the middle of the school year, but if the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s team can come to an agreement, there’s enough state surplus funding to cover that cost. It’s not even about the lack of communication, although I do have to question how an entire department can ignore a $201 million budget error for nearly six months. The biggest problem facing Buckingham, Cumberland, Prince Edward and every other school district in Virginia involves what happens after this budget session is long gone. While everyone is focused on this year’s shortfall, nobody’s talking about the money permanently cut out.

For those who might be wondering what I’m talking about, let’s give a brief refresher. During last year’s Assembly session, members agreed to remove the 1.5% grocery tax from the budget. The idea was to help struggling families by making things a bit cheaper at the store.

However, that tax money went directly to schools, already struggling to fund positions and make needed repairs. Let me underline that: we’re talking about a yearly source of revenue for school districts that suddenly went away. And at the time, each member of the Assembly promised they would find a way to “hold harmless” each district, that is, they would find another revenue source to fill the hole. But nobody actually did. They approved the budget, the governor signed off and people went about their business, without updating any of the tools.

A lesson in school budget mathematics

Email newsletter signup

Each year, the Virginia Department of Education gives districts a school 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, a mistake only recently identified.

And I hear what some of you are saying. The schools knew that grocery tax was going away. They should have planned for a budget cut. But put yourself in their shoes. They were promised that removing the grocery tax wouldn’t affect their budget. Even after the budget was signed, they were told it’s ok, the budget tool we gave you is accurate. With nothing else to go off, they listened to what state officials were saying.

Now again, this year’s budget mistake can be fixed. It’s a one-time error, able to be corrected by a one-time substitution from the state’s rainy day fund. Gov. Youngkin issued a statement over the weekend, saying no overpayments or underpayments had been issued and he’s technically correct. School districts receive state funding distributions throughout the year, so those cuts would come near the end of this school year. Prince Edward would lose $131,000, with Buckingham taking a $116,000 hit and Cumberland’s budget dropping by $76,000. All of that can be avoided, by a simple vote in the Assembly.

Politicians make school budget promises

And yes, politicians across the state are lining up to promise districts won’t see any cuts. Not one red cent this year (remember that last part). They point to the billions sitting in the rainy day fund. They point to the billions of dollars received over the last year from the federal government. They’re doing a lot of pointing and a lot of promising. But promises without action is how we ended up in this mess in the first place.

So far, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been the only one to put something forward, introducing some budget amendments. He’s proposing $90.5 million for this fiscal year, which would cover the shortfall of $58.1 million for the districts. And he’s proposed $441 million for next year.

Combined, that more than handles the immediate issue. And that’s great. But these proposals and the Assembly are not looking at the real damage. This was a yearly revenue stream suddenly taken away. That money is gone, unless the Assembly finds somewhere else to get it from. Districts can get one-time payments to fill the gap this year and next, but what happens after that? Long-term budget planning has to go back to square one. Each district has to reconsider plans, because of an ongoing hole. And it is a pretty good-sized hole.

How big is the hole?

Prince Edward County, for example, will lose $325,000 in the next school year. Buckingham will be short $287,000 and Cumberland County will lose $187,000, unless something changes. And yes, if the Assembly accepts Gov. Youngkin’s amendments, it will solve problems this year and next. But that $325,000 will be missing from the budget in 2025, 2026, 2027 and so on. State officials are treating this like a one-time problem, but the reality is this is an ongoing budget cut, one that will drain resources and affect the classroom.

Now let’s be clear. Yes, districts can absorb some of that by just not filling open positions, but how long can we keep doing that? In Lunenburg County, school employees spelled it out for their school board in January. Employees came to the budget hearing and explained how much they’re struggling, due to unfilled positions. They talked about having to “find creative ways to serve the students with other personnel.” Teachers taking on more classes or adding more students to existing classes, which means they have less time to spend helping each one. Repairs are put off until pieces absolutely fall off the building and even then, it’s barely enough.

We’re making it work, they said, but told the board at some point, that’s not going to be doable unless empty positions are filled.

One-time payments for ongoing issues

And no, you can’t fill empty positions with funding from a one-time payment. Ongoing positions require ongoing revenue to pay the bill. Nobody on the state level wants to talk with us about this, but it’s the critical part. The state created an ongoing budget shortfall and now they want to address it with a one-time payment. All that does is kick the can down the road, where I’m sure it’ll become a focal point of the next election cycle. Again, promises were made and promises so far haven’t been kept.

And we can’t look to the counties to fill in the gap. Do you think Prince Edward County can just hand out $325,000 more each year to the schools? Of course not. The same goes for Buckingham and Cumberland. Instead, it just becomes another cut, handed down from the state.

As I said, I’ve seen a lot of pointing and a lot of promising. I’m ready to see some action. The ball’s in your court, Assembly. Let’s see what you do with it.

BRIAN CARLTON is the editor for The Farmville Herald and Farmville Newsmedia, LLC. He can be reached at Brian.Carlton@