The Commonwealth’s $553 million budget surplus announced by Governor McAuliffe last month was good news for localities – to a point. At least, what local governments sarcastically called “local aid to the state,” the requirement for several years that local governments either must trim their budgets by the precise amount of state funding they received in particular categories (such as human services and public safety), or reimburse the state for funding received from the state budget, won’t be necessary this year. Most of the surplus is constitutionally required to be deposited to the Rainy Day Fund and the Water Quality Improvement Fund, but the surplus also means that Fairfax County Public Schools will receive about $4.7 million for teacher salary increases.
The not-so-good news is that state funding for K-12 public education overall in FY 2016 still is below the high point of FY 2009. That picture becomes more dismal when student growth numbers and inflation are factored in. In FY 2009, direct aid to K-12 across the state was more than $5.6 billion; in FY 2016, that same aid was $5.56 billion, a decrease of more than $47 million. At last week’s County Officials Summit in Richmond, sponsored by the Virginia Association of Counties, one state expert noted that Virginia’s teacher salaries are about $7,000 less than the national average. Funding those salaries, as well as the prevailing support costs, would require an extra $750 million in state funding per year, or an extra $625 per student.
Every county in the Commonwealth exceeded the “required local effort” (RLE) in FY 2013, according to updated reports. In FY 2014, the average support in excess of RLE was 84.06 percent. RLE requires that sufficient local funds have been budgeted to meet all state required local effort and required local match amounts for the Standards of Quality (SOQ). Forty-five school divisions exceed 100 percent RLE; Fairfax County funds schools at 127.86 percent of the required RLE. Clearly, the Commonwealth and the General Assembly need to ensure that our youngest Virginians benefit from investments in public education. Localities already have stepped up to the plate; their budgets prove it.
Additionally, the Virginia Board of Education has made a number of changes to the SOQ, or Standards of Quality, but those recommendations, too, lack state funding. Among their recommendations is a one reading (K-12) and one math teacher (K-8) for every 1,000 students, a full-time assistant principal for every 400 students in the school, and a full-time principal for each elementary school. These are unfunded changes to the SOQ. And, the spending cuts still are being felt. Since FY 2009, 71 percent of the school divisions have increased class sizes since FY 2012. Nearly all school divisions who reduced staff has added duties to the remaining staff. Some of those institutions also reduced compensation and employee benefits in the same time period.
A strong public education system is a must for our community, and budget figures at the county level reflect substantial, and consistent, support for our Fairfax County Public Schools. It’s time for the Commonwealth and the General Assembly to do the same.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]