Cumberland County finds way to fully fund school district

Published 10:25 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Cumberland County has found a way to fully fund the requests of its public school system. The district just has to pay back the extra, once the General Assembly finalizes its own budget.

In April, when Cumberland County staff originally presented the budget, they were a bit short. Specifically, the county was $489,628 short of what the state required Cumberland to pay for schools. It’s known as the “local ability to pay”. 

As part of the funding plan every two years, the state calculates the “local ability to pay” for schools. The Virginia Department of Education (DOE) first looks at a district’s aggregate property wealth. That means the number of homeowners in an area, multiplied by the average value of property. They also check adjusted gross income for an area and taxable retail sales. The DOE then compares these numbers to the statewide average and generates a number, the bare minimum that county is required to fund the school district at. 

Email newsletter signup

But for Cumberland, this hasn’t been the easiest year in terms of finding funding. In fact, when counting all requests from county departments, there was a $2.4 million gap between those needs and what the county could afford to pay without raising taxes. 

“That’s a pretty significant gap to try and work together to cover,” Cumberland County Administrator Derek Stamey said. 

But the alternative, as multiple people pointed out during the April 11 public hearing, would be to cut programs. For the schools, that would mean eliminating some of the programs that have already proved to be successful this year, as there just wouldn’t be money in the bank for them. And that in turn would cause more problems. 

“Seven teachers have already turned in resignations for the upcoming year, because they’re going to places that will pay them more,” said Cumberland Schools Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Jamerson. “I have five positions that we were unable to fill because we can’t compete. So what are we going to do for teachers?”  

The Cumberland County plan 

But if the county was going to fully meet that bare minimum level for schools, how was it going to be done? Stamey pointed out if the county tried to pull money for it from capital improvement projects, then needed repairs wouldn’t take place. They also could have used the fund balance, but that’s already being used to cover some other existing bills. 

“Really, what it boiled down to was hammering this through a turnback,” Stamey said. “The recommendation is based upon and contingent on a mutual understanding of the school system turning back to the county at least equal to that number as they close out their fiscal ‘23 budget.” 

The option is available due to the situation that caused this problem in the first place. 

Basically, this is an interest-free loan. The county agrees to give schools the money the district needs to finish out the year, that $489,628. In turn, when the state General Assembly finally agrees to a budget, the district will refund or “turnback” that money, taking it from what the state provides them. 

“I personally think this is an opportunity to implement a change that could benefit all of us in future years and I hope we take this opportunity to improve our process,” Stamey said. 

When will Assembly vote on a budget? 

The magic question in all this is when will the state actually do something? The Assembly left their regular session in February without a vote and even when the governor called them back for a special session in April, the budget couldn’t get to a vote. The House version of the budget is more conservative, the Senate’s version provides more revenue and the governor’s proposed budget is in the middle. The groups just can’t agree on one or even on pieces of one. 

Local officials in three localities have told The Herald they’ve been warned to not expect a vote until mid-to-late June. That would be after the primary elections take place June 20. 

What happens next for Cumberland County? 

The Cumberland budget, including the turnback plan, was voted on and unanimously adopted at the group’s April 18 meeting. Stamey told the board that night that he and Cumberland Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones would meet for monthly updates on how things are progressing, until the county gets its money back.