Lunenburg, other school districts in ‘wait and see’ mode

Published 8:00 am Thursday, February 16, 2023

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Virginia school districts, including Lunenburg, are in a ‘wait and see’ mode. On the plus side, both the Virginia House and Senate versions of the state budget would fully cover the shortfall that came about due to a bookkeeping mistake. The bad part is that districts have to hold off on budget discussions until that’s finalized and that could take a couple more weeks.

And while yes, the money is included in both the House and Senate versions of the budget, 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 in for schools, but both the House and Senate have to debate how that would be spent.

How did we get here?

First off, here’s a quick refresher on the situation. On Jan. 1, Virginia eliminated its grocery tax. There was just one problem. That tax had provided millions of dollars in funding for school districts across the state, including Lunenburg County. Specifically, $201 million had been set aside in the current two-year state budget, money that would go from the grocery tax to help fund schools. Districts budgeted with their share of that money in mind, expecting it to come because nobody told them otherwise.

Instead, superintendents received a letter from the Virginia Department of Education at the end of January. It explained there had been an error and now, more than three fourths of the way through the current school year, districts won’t receive all the state funding that had been promised, for this year or the next. That’s what the Assembly is now trying to fix, using the more than $3 billion in the state’s rainy day fund as a one-time band-aid.

Virginia school districts get help from VDOE

Now as the Assembly debates, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has promised to send some help. It’s worth pointing out they’re partly to blame, as it was a VDOE budgeting error that caused all this.

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. Now VDOE officials are promising districts will get two new, corrected formulas to work with in the next week, one for the House budget and one for the Senate. And yes, that means double the work for district officials.

The Dispatch reached out to Lunenburg County Public Schools Superintendent Charles Berkley Jr. for information about how the district is dealing with the issue, but hadn’t been able to reach him by press time.

Other local districts are in a ‘wait and see’ mode.

“We are waiting to see what the General Assembly decides as far as funding for next year’s budget,” said Buckingham County Superintendent Dr. John Keeler. “There are some differences between the two houses. We are expecting the VDOE to provide calc tools for both the House and Senate budgets next week. We will compare the two and build our first budget draft.”

The same goes for Prince Edward County, where the staff doesn’t plan to start budget workshops until Feb. 22.

“By then, I’m hoping a tool is here and we are clear on what needs to happen,” Prince Edward Superintendent Dr. Barbara Johnson told her school board last week.