Additional funding for most vulnerable Fairfax Co. students at risk as amended state budget remains unfinished

Additional funding for the most vulnerable Fairfax County Public School students is at risk as Virginia lawmakers remain divided over how they will distribute a revenue surplus and pass an amended budget.

In a letter to the Fairfax County General Assembly Delegation, obtained by WTOP, school board members representing the state’s largest school system described the consequences of a Department of Education calculation error that they say has yet to be fully addressed by the state. That, coupled with no movement on an amended budget, has created uncertainty, the letter says.

Like other Northern Virginia school systems, Fairfax County has approved its fiscal 2024 budget, a $3.5 billion package that includes a 3% raise for all staff and funding for middle school athletics for the first time. However, the school board said a finalized budget at the state level is needed to give local jurisdictions “time to adjust to any state changes that might be made prior to the opening of the 2023-2024 school year.”

School board member Karl Frisch, representing the county’s Providence District, said the delay impacts all students and families.

Virginia usually passes a two-year budget in even-numbered years, and that plan is typically amended in odd-numbered years, The Associated Press reported.

Earlier this year, members of the General Assembly passed a “skinny budget,” which had only a few amendments because a broader agreement couldn’t be reached. A timeline for additional budget amendments is unclear.

“What we’re asking from our state partners is that they complete their budget so that we know exactly what to expect in terms of the funding we will be receiving from the state,” Frisch said. “The uncertainty is no good for anybody, least of all our students in the biggest need.”

The Virginia Department of Education’s calculation tool error left school systems with less funding than expected and, Frisch said, Fairfax put aside $6.2 million in one-time funds to address the shortfall. That’s still $13 million “that we will not be getting because of the governor’s unfixed math error,” he said.

As a result of the miscue, the school system deferred more funding for “achievement gap-closing strategies and special education compensatory services until the state’s financial picture becomes clearer,” the letter said. The same error caused a cut in hiring special education teaching assistants in nearby Prince William County schools.

Meanwhile, the delay in passing an amended budget could create budgeting and hiring challenges, the letter said. For example, Frisch said, if the state passed an additional 2% increase in teacher compensation in a budget amendment, the county would have to “find another $43 million.” To access state funding, he said, the county has to cover 80% of the money.

The board’s top priority is the repeal of the position funding cap, according to Frisch. He said Virginia has a funding cap for some positions and there has been a yearslong effort to repeal it, which would help counties such as Fairfax that have more staff than the state pays for.

The letter said that a full repeal of the cap would result in over $25 million in funding for the county, which could be used to fund security, technology and transportation initiatives, among other things.

Once the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin agree on a budget, the school system will start determining how much additional funding will be spent, Frisch said.

“I certainly hope they will get this done,” Frisch said. “Our school system is counting on them to do what’s right and to get this across the finish line.”

Asked Tuesday about a timeline for a budget agreement, a Youngkin spokeswoman pointed to remarks he made earlier this month:

“Virginians need a budget, we can afford it, we can cut taxes, we can invest in law enforcement, in education, in behavioral health, there’s more money in the system then we’ve ever had before. It’s time for us to give some of it back to Virginians, because it’s Virginians money, not the government, and to invest in these most important priorities,” Youngkin said.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, whose district includes parts of Fairfax County, said, “somebody’s going to have to compromise” before a budget agreement is reached. Youngkin has urged lawmakers to cut taxes by another $1 billion while also increasing government spending.

In a statement, Scott Brabrand, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said the final budget could be the deciding factor for determining how much teacher raises will be for the upcoming school year.

“With a statewide teacher shortage and a statewide teacher salary still below the national average, Virginia can’t afford to fall further behind,” Brabrand said.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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