Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Roscoe Reynolds Fully Funded School Budget Plan, And Why It Can't Work

In my previous article I expressed my opinion that Senator Reynolds' call for Virginia to "...fully fund education in grades kindergarten through 12" was a cynical means of pleasing the audience, without having to expend any brain power to do so. In this piece I will expound on the reasons that the Roscoe Reynolds Fully Funded School Budget Plan cannot work.

As I said before I looked at the details of 2006 education funding in all 136 school districts in Virginia. As one would assume, they vary wildly across the state. There does not seem to be any uniform method of determining "expenditure per pupil" in Virginia, nor does there seem to be any uniform method to determine the state's contribution to a school district on a "per pupil" basis. Even the Federal funds vary wildly when looked at on a "per pupil" basis.

The numbers are all over the place. Of course, anyone would expect local school districts to differ quite a bit on a per pupil basis when determining their budget. A school board puts together a budget, just like any other local agency, which is then approved or adjusted by the Board of Supervisors or City Council. Some counties can afford more per student than others, for example Arlington County spends $15,104 per pupil from local revenues and Buchanan County finds it can afford only $2,633 dollars of local revenue to spend on each student. That's logical and to be expected. Arlington County is a much more expensive place to live than Hurley, so the cost of operating Wakefield High School will be much higher than those associated with the operation of Hurley High School. Teachers (and support staff, from front office secretaries to janitors and night watchmen) at Wakefield will (rightly) demand a much higher salary than a comparably skilled and educated teacher or support personnel at Hurley. (We do live in a real world, in spite of what politicians sometimes believe.) It now comes down to old fashioned negotiation between the school board and the Board of Supervisors to hammer out the local portion of the school district's budget.

But apparently there is more to this process than cost of living. Obviously there is, because there are other factors to be considered. Is there a building program going on in the county at present? Are schools being consolidated? Are others being closed, or renovated? It becomes quite complicated, even when comparing two school districts for parity, much less 136 separate school districts, each with different current needs and desires.

And you have the anomalies. Again, just looking at local revenue contributions to a school district's budget, the numbers vary wildly. Grayson County's School Board , for example found that in 2006 it could get by fine by increasing the school budget by only 5% or so over state and Federal funding projections. Next door, Carroll County felt it needed 23% more than the state and Federal contributions. Was the Carroll County school board too extravagant, or was Grayson County's too frugal? Was the Carroll County Board of Supervisors too indulgent in approving the request, or was the Grayson County Board too miserly? Is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Now we get to the part of the problem that makes Reynolds' statement so unworkable in the real world. In spite of my previous statement, there must be a formula that determines state and Federal contributions on a per student basis. I'm sure it involves poverty levels and other such factors in a given locality, but I don't know the details. School Boards do know those details though, and can use projected non-local revenues to calculate their budget for the year. Once they determine about what those non-local revenues will be, they add in their favorite pet projects, expected employment increases or decreases, desired employee raises, and other such costs and go to their Board of Supervisors (or City Council) with a proposed budget.

As my research has shown, some school boards go to the Board of Supervisors with a budget that is less than projected non-local revenue. But very few do. Most, as expected, go to negotiation with the hope of getting more. Sometimes much, much more. In order for the Roscoe Reynolds Fully Funded School Budget Plan to work, taxes would have to be drastically increased to cover those budget shortfalls that occur in most school board budgets. But the real kicker is that local control of those school board budgets would have to be removed. No longer would a local Board of Supervisors be able to arbitraily approve a budget over state funding. The Roscoe Reynolds Fully Funded School Budget Plan would require a new level of state bureaucracy. School boards would have to justify any budget item not covered by the Roscoe Reynolds Fully Funded School Budget Plan tax increase to a state agency which could then approve the additional funds in order to maintain "full funding of education in grades kindergarten through 12".

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