Mark Gribbin, chief legislative analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), presents findings from the agency's study of Virginia's K-12 school funding formula to Chesterfield's Audit and Finance Committee.
A study conducted by the Virginia General Assembly’s watchdog agency confirmed what Chesterfield officials have known for many years: the state government significantly underfunds the county’s public school division.
Mark Gribbin, chief legislative analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), presented findings and recommendations from the report, which was released in July, to Chesterfield’s Audit and Finance Committee last week.
According to Gribbin, if each of JLARC’s proposed changes were made to Virginia’s current funding structure for K-12 public education, state support for Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) would have increased by $226.7 million during fiscal year 2023.
“Obviously, these numbers are not a huge surprise to those of us who have been on this board for many years and have watched the state’s annual funding conversation as relates to schools,” said Clover Hill District Supervisor Chris Winslow, who serves on Audit and Finance alongside Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland. “The argument that’s out there sometimes that the county government has not been pulling its weight on funding schools … I think this clearly runs counter to that.”
Matt Harris, Chesterfield’s deputy county administrator for finance and administration, delivered a summary of JLARC’s findings to the entire Board of Supervisors at its monthly business meeting Wednesday.
“I think it’s important to get this information out into the community about what JLARC is. This study was commissioned by the General Assembly and they’re reporting back on what the General Assembly has not done in Virginia,” said Matoaca District Supervisor Kevin Carroll, the board’s chair. “That is an indictment, quite frankly, of legislators and previous administrations that did not recognize what we’ve been saying for years – that localities have been picking up the tab for schools.”
With 67 schools, more than 64,000 students and an $836.3 million operating budget, CCPS is one of Virginia’s five largest school divisions.
Because county and school leaders agree that the state’s Standards of Quality (SOQ) don’t accurately reflect the number of classroom-based positions needed to operate a first-class school division, Chesterfield has long allocated funding to CCPS that far exceeds what is mandated under the Virginia Department of Education’s funding formula.
The local government fully funds about 900 classroom positions, including salaries and benefits. That represents an annual expenditure of about $105 million to $110 million more than required by the Local Composite Index, a calculation that determines each locality’s ability to pay for its public schools.
For perspective, that number accounts for about 20 cents on Chesterfield’s real estate tax rate.
“In many ways, this is validation that we have been funding the schools to a certain level. The commonwealth has not been meeting its obligations and the JLARC study clearly states they have not,” said Midlothian District Supervisor Dr. Mark S. Miller.
The release of the 163-page school spending analysis was the culmination of an 18-month study initiated by both chambers of the General Assembly in 2021.
It found that Virginia’s school divisions receive 14% less funding from the state than America’s 50-state average, equal to about $1,900 less per student. It also spends 4% less than the average for the U.S. Census’ South Atlantic region; while Virginia spends more on K-12 schools than North Carolina and Tennessee, it trails Kentucky, Maryland and West Virginia.
JLARC’s study attributes much of that lag to the SOQ funding formula, which Gribbin noted “uses inputs and assumptions that lack clear rationale and do not reflect prevailing practices in school divisions across the state.”
Specifically, it underestimates how much funding schools need to fulfill their mission. In fiscal year 2021, the SOQ formula determined that Virginia schools needed $10.7 billion in state and local funds; schools actually spent $17.3 billion, a gap of $6.6 billion that was filled almost entirely by local governments.
Virginia could simplify its school funding calculation and increase transparency, the report concluded, by switching from its current staffing-based formula to a model based on per-student funding that is used by all but eight other states.
“A student-based formula is probably what Virginia would pick if it was starting from scratch,” Gribbin said.
As part of its research, JLARC modeled the cost of transitioning to a student-based formula and concluded it would increase school funding by $1.2 billion annually statewide.
Should the state opt to continue with the current system, the report recommended a number of adjustments that could be implemented both in the short term and over a longer time horizon.
Those items total $3.5 billion, more than half of which ($1.9 billion) would be allocated to revising the SOQ to reflect actual staffing levels needed in 21st-century schools.
“I don’t expect them to do it all at one time. It won’t happen overnight. What I’d like to do is work with the state collaboratively to fund this over a series of years,” Holland said.
Bermuda District Supervisor Jim Ingle, vice chair of the Board of Supervisors, called on Chesterfield county and school leaders to partner with their regional peers, meet with legislators and demand that the state government adequately support K-12 education.
“We have very well funded our schools. We need the state to step up,” he said.
Gribbin noted that the recently passed state budget for FY2024 requires creation of a work group including five members from the House of Delegates and five from the Senate to evaluate options on K-12 education funding.
He also said the proposed biennial budget that will be presented by Governor Glenn Youngkin in December could include funding to begin implementing some of the recommendations in the JLARC report.
“We’ll have to wait and see on that,” he added.