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

The biggest problem isn’t about this year’s school budgets. 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 Lunenburg 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. And 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.

Each year, the Virginia Department of Education gives 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, 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 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.

For this year, Lunenburg County schools would lose $92,000. That’s enough to cover at least one full-time teaching position, but now that cut may be absorbed by just eliminating one of the currently open positions in the district. That can be avoided by a simple vote in the General Assembly.

And yes, politicians across the state are lining up to promise districts won’t see any cuts. Not one red cent. 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, I haven’t seen one bill get introduced to fix this, even just a fix for the current year. A one-page bill would do the trick, just stating that the Assembly agrees to take $201 million from the rainy day fund and allocate it to this issue. One page, one line and at least the first part is handled. But the Assembly isn’t doing that. They just keep making promises.

But they’re not talking about the real damage, which comes later. This was a yearly revenue stream suddenly taken away. That money is gone, unless the Assembly finds somewhere else to get it from. That means the budget planning for next year 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. Lunenburg County schools will lose $288,000 in fiscal year 2024 because of this. Nearby Charlotte County will see $263,000 go away, while Prince Edward will lose $325,000. Call it a mistake, call it an accident, call it what you want. Unless fixed by this year’s Assembly, that is an ongoing cut which 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? Our school employees in Lunenburg spelled it out for the 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.

And again, empty positions can’t be funded if the state takes hundreds of thousands of dollars away, especially in rural districts like ours. It’s an argument that could have come from any of our districts. Promises were made and promises haven’t been kept.

And we can’t look to the counties to fill in the gap. Do you think Lunenburg County can just hand out $288,000 more each year to the schools? Of course not. The same goes for Charlotte and Prince Edward. 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 K-V Dispatch and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. He can be reached at Brian.Carlton@KVDispatch.com.