District deals with shortfall
Published 8:00 am Thursday, March 2, 2023
Robbie Mason and his staff are facing a challenge. The superintendent for Charlotte County Public Schools, Mason is required to turn in a budget to county officials within 30 days, but one key piece is missing. As the General Assembly adjourned without addressing the state-created $201 million shortfall for school districts, now local superintendents and school boards have to figure out how to absorb that cut.
“We will proceed as though the FY 24 grocery tax money will not be available to us,” Mason said. “Creating a budget will be tough because the two houses are so far apartment on budget amendments at this time and our budget is due to the county by the end of March.”
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”.
Proceeding without the grocery tax money means losing an estimated $106,000 this current fiscal year and another $263,000 next year for Charlotte schools. Neighboring counties are dealing with the same thing. Prince Edward County will lose $131,000 in fiscal year 2023 and $325,000 in fiscal year 2024. Cumberland County, meanwhile, will lose $76,000 this year and $187,000 for next year in state funding.
EXPLAINING THE SHORTFALL
What are we talking about? 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.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Now 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 compromise. Once that happens, the House and Senate can come back into session and take a vote. But this isn’t a quick solution.
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.