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School funding still at risk

RICHMOND — Under pressure from politicians in Northern Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell appears to be backing away from a staff comment that he would leave unchanged a school funding formula that takes money from more affluent localities and gives it to less affluent ones.

Last week, McDonnell’s press secretary, Stacey Johnson, told Capital News Service that the governor planned to uphold the funding-formula freeze proposed in December by then-Gov. Tim Kaine.

“The Governor plans to keep the current freeze,” Johnson stated in a Jan. 22 email. “We will put out more specific direction to agency heads next week.”

However, on Tuesday, Johnson backed away from that statement. She said the decision to maintain the freeze was not finalized when asked by Rosalind Helderman, a Washington Post reporter who writes the newspaper’s Virginia Politics blog. Johnson sent the same statement to Capital News Service.

“We are evaluating all of the components of the current budget and will be working with House and Senate budget conferees to gather their input on existing spending reductions, as well as potential new cost savings strategies,” Johnson said in the statement Tuesday.

“No final decisions have been made regarding the composite index freeze by the legislators or the Governor’s finance team.”

The apparent change of mind could cause some headaches here in Suffolk, where school administrators had just completed an early version of the budget that they had planned to submit for public consideration on Wednesday. Suffolk Public Schools spokesperson Bethanne Bradshaw said late Thursday afternoon that she was unsure whether Superintendent Milton R. Liverman would need to rewrite that early version of the budget prior to Wednesday.

Either way, she seemed to indicate that the turn of events was not entirely surprising.

“I know that the Northern Virginia schools wanted it to go ahead and change,” she said. “Now the folks down here need to scream as much as the folks up there.”

At issue is the Local Composite Index, a formula that determines how much school funding a county or city will get from the state government.

The LCI assigns each school division a score, such as “.75” or “.51,” based on the locality’s adjusted gross income, taxable retail sales and property tax base. The lower its score, the more money the locality gets from the state government for basic education — and vice versa.

The LCI scores for Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties were about to drop – meaning those school divisions would get more state funding. However, Kaine decided to freeze the LCI scores at last year’s levels.

The result: Fairfax County stands to lose $61 million; Prince William County, $22 million dollars; and Loudoun County, $34 million.

In Suffolk, the decision to freeze the LCI or not could cause a swing in state funding of as much as $4 million, according to school officials. Contrary to the situation faced in Northern Virginia, Suffolk stands to lose the money if the formula is changed.