When will it be finished? Lack of state budget challenges schools

Published 12:18 am Friday, July 28, 2023

Where is the state budget? That’s the question most school districts are asking across the Commonwealth. If that was a question on a quiz in one of his Cumberland County school classrooms, Dr. Chip Jones knows not a single state lawmaker could answer it correctly.

One thing is for sure: school must go on.

“We still have a school to operate, bills to pay, and so forth,” the superintendent said. “But I can’t imagine any moment (state lawmakers) will let anything close, like a school system.”

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But then again, until this year, Richmond never went this deep into July without a budget, so no eventuality may be off the table.

Working off a scratch budget

Like many school districts, Cumberland is working off a scratch budget, fueled primarily from federal and local funding, with the hopes those monies will hold out until funds arrive from the state.

“It’s always good to have a budget as you get ready to roll into July 1,” Jones said. “But since the state didn’t have one, our board of supervisors approved a budget in the spring, and they appropriated the money, so we’re able to operate.”

Lawmakers returned to the negotiating table for the first time in nearly a month on Thursday, but it doesn’t appear a resolution is on the horizon.

“I know no more than you do at this time,” state Sen. Frank Ruff told The Farmville Herald last Friday. “With the leadership of the Senate budget conference committee made up completely with those not returning because of retirement or defeat, there seems to be no one willing to make an effort to complete their work.”

In his recent Herald column, Ruff described the last time senators tried to get a budget approved — the “wheels quickly came off in the process.” 

State Sen. George Barker filled in as chair of the finance committee for State Sen. Janet Howell, who was on vacation.

Instead of making progress, talks broke down because no one seemed to be able to agree on what had been hashed out in previous meetings.

“I’m not on the committee piecing together the budget, therefore, I don’t know which has the better memory,” Ruff wrote in his column. “Nevertheless, the result was that each walked away from the table. Something I would never do. When assigned a project, one’s responsibility is to get it done.”

Which option will work? 

In nearby Charlotte County, the good news is so far, any impact from the lack of the state budget has been minimal. 

“Since it was the second year of the budget and we already had a state budget in place (before), the issues we have faced have been relatively minor,” Charlotte County superintendent Robbie Mason said.

The biggest issue for Charlotte is that staff want to know how much they’ll get paid. All versions of the state budget call for a pay increase for school staff, but as of yet, the House and Senate haven’t been able to agree on how much.

“One budget version called for a 5% increase, while another version called for a 7% increase,” Mason said.

That can make hiring new people a challenge.

“At the same time, we were hiring new staff and we were not sure about which raise to offer, because we did not know which percentage the state compensation supplement would cover,” Mason said. “If we offered less of an increase than surrounding divisions, we could have potentially lost teaching candidates. If this level of division remains in Richmond as a new budget is developed next year, it could prove to be very challenging for public school systems.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced last year’s budget created a $5.1 billion surplus, with the Republican wanting to spend at least some of that in the form of tax cuts coming into the current budget cycle. Yet, Democrats who have control of the state Senate, aren’t keen on that proposal, especially since they believe it could cut funding to a number of key state resources, including education.

In Cumberland, the last thing Jones wants to see for his more than 1,200 students is for this to continue.

The impasse has created uncertainty in the educational system that goes beyond fears of not being able to buy supplies. It’s also making it even harder for schools like those in Cumberland to hire the very educators needed to lead each of the classrooms.

“We’re in the midst of a teacher shortage, so we’re trying to recruit,” Jones said. “We’re trying to retain. We’re trying to open a school year where we’re offering quality education in Cumberland County. I think we do a good job with that. But then, at the end of the day, you don’t have a state-approved budget.”

Business as usual

In the meantime, it’s business as usual for Jones, Mason and the other superintendents as they get ready for the start of the new academic year on Aug. 9. Still, it comes down to making a decision for him and many school administrators like him: Do you focus on the work in front of you? Or, do you spend time lobbying for a budget resolution.

“It’s like chasing a rabbit down a hole,” Jones said. “Do you spend your time calling Richmond or calling whatever to get a budget passed? It’s more where do you spend your energy in a small rural school system?”

Jones doesn’t know about his counterparts in other parts of the Commonwealth, but he knows what’s happening in Cumberland. For him, the decision has already been made.

“My choice right now is to open school, and make sure I have teachers in place and that everything’s in place for when teachers come back,” Jones said. “And for where students know that we have a great start to the school year.”