Budget & Finance

How Sloppy Math Makes Budgeting Harder for Schools

By Mark Lieberman — February 07, 2023 | Updated: February 08, 2023 3 min read
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Updated: This story has been updated with a comment from the Virginia Department of Education.

Some school funding shortfalls are caused by a complex mix of factors, like demographic shifts and political trends. Others, though, can be traced back simply to sloppy math and inadequate proofreading.

Take the current predicament in Virginia. Every year, the state sends each school district an interactive spreadsheet. School finance staffers plug in the number of students and other demographic details about their student bodies, and the spreadsheet returns an estimate for the state aid the district can expect for the coming school year.

On Jan. 31, weeks after districts had already started planning for next school year’s budgets, the state made a startling announcement: Thanks to human error, some of the spreadsheet’s calculations failed to account for changes in revenue caused by the state’s reduction of its sales tax on groceries at the start of the year.

In short, the estimates were too high. Worse still, the state discovered the same error also affected the current school year’s budget calculations.

All told, the state’s estimates for schools exceeded the actual planned investments by more than $200 million, including $58 million for the school year that’s currently underway.

Andy Hawkins, executive director for financial services for the 7,500-student Manassas City school district, still isn’t sure how much money his district believed it got this year that it shouldn’t have. But next year, the error could cost the district nearly $1 million in expected funds, or $133 per student.

“Especially when you’re in a poorer school district, you depend on state money as your lifeline,” Hawkins said. “For them to come back at this late date and say we made a mistake, it causes significant problems.”

Without that $1 million for next year, Hawkins said schools will experience some tangible changes. Class sizes will increase. Supplemental instruction programs could be cut. The district would have to buy fewer supplies and delay maintenance on school buildings that need upgrades.

This burst of chaos is playing out while the district deals with a wide range of other financial challenges, including the oncoming expiration of federal COVID relief funds.

For their part, state officials have said they have sufficient funds available to make up the difference. The state education department plans this week to send districts an updated spreadsheet that generates accurate estimates, Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email Tuesday.

“Governor Youngkin’s goal is for no local school division to experience a budgetary shortfall because of the error,” Pyle wrote.

Funding cuts hit chronically underfunded schools harder

These problems also point to a much larger systemic one, Hawkins said: State funding for education hasn’t kept up with inflation or returned to levels it reached before the Great Recession. This is true in Virginia and many other states, where headlines about school funding increases ignore that the cost of schooling is rising faster than the availability of new resources.

In Iowa, for instance, legislators just approved a 3 percent increase in state aid for schools, even as inflation approached 7 percent last year. Minnesota is considering a law that would mandate that school funding increases be tied to the inflation rate, but advocates are frustrated that the proposed law would cap the increases at 3 percent.

In Virginia, Hawkins has calculated that the Manassas City schools would have received $25 million more over the years if funding increases matched annual inflation. The district would be able to offer better benefits to keep teaching positions filled, and improve the quality of instructional offerings.

The state currently has a $3.6 billion surplus. The centerpiece of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s recent state budget proposal, still under review by lawmakers, is cutting individual and corporate income taxes, at a cost of nearly $700 million in state revenue. Education spending proposals include investments of $24 million in reading and math specialists, $50 million in merit bonuses for teachers, and $50 million for laboratory schools developed by universities.

Hawkins isn’t impressed.

“The error that was made is bad,” Hawkins said. “But it’s just another thing in a long line of ways where public education hasn’t been properly funded throughout the years.”

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