As School Year Begins, Area Officials Weigh Impact of State Fund Shortfall

Area schools begin in earnest following Labor Day next week, and spokesmen for both Fairfax County and the City of Falls Church say they’re not worried that the General Assembly in Richmond adjourned before approving millions in additional funds they’re counting on for the coming school year.

A now-famous accounting error associated with revisions in the state’s sales tax code left Fairfax County schools with $18 million less than they were promised last December, and the City of Falls Church schools are now $212,000 short.

While the General Assembly promised to make up the difference to avoid some serious school impacts throughout the state, it left Richmond Monday without taking action.

The Senate approved the additional funds, totaling $130 million statewide, but the House Republican leadership chose to spend two hours Monday in partisan rants about the alleged causes of the problem, and then adjourned before taking a vote.

Del. Jim Scott, who represents the 53rd District including Falls Church and the Providence District section of Fairfax, stood up to protest when the House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) praised Fairfax County officials for first identifying the state’s budget accounting error, but then refused to act on the motion to correct it with supplemental funds.

Griffith said that further study of the impact of providing the additional funds was needed before taking a vote. That might come when the legislature reconvenes later in September to take up transportation funding issues.

Fairfax County school officials initially indicated they could not begin the school year next week without some significant cuts in hiring or school programs unless the additional $18 million was “in their pocket,” so to speak.

But school spokesman Paul Regnier told the News-Press Tuesday that the $18 million current shortfall in a county school budget of over $1 billion is “nothing dramatic,” and that no major moves are yet planned.

“We’re taking a wait and see approach, anticipating the money will eventually come,” he said, although he added that “the alert is out to hold back” pending the resolution of the problem. “We’ve had funding delays in the past,” he noted, “and we’ve always been able to manage.”

The Falls Church City Public Schools’ chief financial officer Hunter Kimball noted that of almost $2 million the system gets from the state every year as its share of sales tax revenues, the accounting error has led to a shortfall of $212,906.

While that sum is also a small percentage of the system’s overall budget, it represents almost a penny on the real estate tax rate for City’s taxpayers.

“We have no plans for dealing with the shortfall at this time,” Kimball told the News-Press. “We will await recommendations from the School Board, especially if it looks like the legislature will not come up with the funds by the end of September.”

Del. Scott, in comments to the News-Press Tuesday, derided his GOP colleagues in the House for postponing the vote, saying it reflected the same attitude that led the GOP delegation to vote down funds for a child care subsidy in June.

With a loss of federal revenue to the state for child care, Gov. Tim Kaine proposed $6 million to make up the gap, but the GOP-led general assembly voted it down. According to the Fairfax Department of Family Services, the result could be the loss of services to 1,900 out of 6,750 children in the county who currently rely on the programs.

Scott singled out what he called the “famous” comment of State Del. David Albo (R-Springfield) at the time, who claimed to justify denying the funds by insisting that the state “had to save every penny” for transportation, instead.