Published Online: February 18, 2010

Va. Education Officials Decry K-12 Budget Cuts

What education administrators, teachers and advocates have feared has become official: Gov. Bob McDonnell says he plans to cut $731 million in state support to local public school divisions.

The amount announced Wednesday represents an 11 percent funding cut in state public-education support and makes up about 35 percent of the $2.1 billion McDonnell plans to trim overall to help reconcile a $4 billion, two-year budget gap. It comes on top of more than $1.2 billion in K-12 education cuts proposed by former Gov. Timothy Kaine.

Virginia School Boards Association executive director Frank Barham said the cuts would further place the burden of paying for public education on cash-strapped local school divisions. Barham repeated previous warnings that schools would have to lay off tens of thousands of teachers, raise class sizes and cut programs, which ultimately harm students.

"I would hate to be a superintendent or on a School Board in the next two years and have to tell parents and kids that their level of services will be less than what it is now," Barham said. "This will drastically change (public education) and cause us to regress in the student programs and services that we offer."

The VSBA, the Virginia Education Association and other groups have estimated that 30,000 public education jobs will have to be cut as a direct result of decreased state aid, but that number is expected to grow depending on whether divisions are able to cover their personnel costs, which typically make up about 85 percent of their school budgets.

Andy Block, legal director of the advocacy group JustChildren, said he's concerned that forcing localities to make up a loss in state funding could exacerbate the disparities in educational opportunities that already exist between wealthy divisions such as Fairfax County and poor ones such as Petersburg.

"While some localities that will be able to make up the difference, some won't, and those that won't have the highest concentration of poverty," Block said.

Funding for public schools accounts for $11.4 billion, or 37 percent of the total general fund operating budget, according to McDonnell's office.

The largest portion of the proposed K-12 reductions involves a $225.8 million drop in funding over two years by delaying scheduled updates to the formula Virginia uses to rebenchmark the Standards of Quality, minimum educational objectives set by state law that dictate instructional staffing ratios, teacher salaries and other requirements.

McDonnell also proposes to cut $130.1 million by eliminating state salary supplements for sports coaches and department chairs; trim nearly $92 million by eliminating $67 million in state support for school construction and operating costs and other measures such as school breakfast programs; cut about $70.7 million in by eliminating inflationary adjustments for gasoline, supplies and other non-personnel costs; and decrease supplemental funding for at-risk students by $41.5 million by capping the per-student percentage of aid allowed.

Barham and others warn that the state cuts will force local governments to consider raising taxes to cover their costs.

The cuts are expected to harm every school division and devastate poorer ones in areas such as Petersburg, Lee County and Portsmouth, because those localities are more dependent on state funds to operate their schools, and have limited ability to make up the lost revenue.

"If you have no tax base, or no local wealth, you have no way to make up for what the state's not sending," said Robley Jones, the Virginia Education Association's chief lobbyist. "It's a shift and shaft — because the local folks, they're not going to close down the schools. There's not a locality that would say, 'We're going out of the school business' — but they have varied abilities to raise money."

School divisions statewide have seen substantial declines in local property-tax collections because of slumping housing values, and face millions in deficits. Many have discussed the possibility of cutting hundreds of jobs and reducing salaries; consolidating or closing schools; and eliminating music, sports and foreign language programs, among other measures.

In addition to cuts, the governor also proposed to add $29.5 million to allow the state to update the index used to determine localities' ability to fund local education, reversing Kaine's attempt to delay the routine update until the 2012 fiscal year. He also has proposed allowing the issuance of debt to pay for schools' technology equipment.

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