Bounty may bypass N.Va. schools if formula change is delayed

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010

Northern Virginia lawmakers often go to Richmond with visions of repealing an unpopular education funding formula that routinely sends millions of local taxpayer dollars to schools far south of Washington's suburbs. This year, they are hoping simply to enforce it.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine proposed a one-year delay in the regularly scheduled readjustment of the formula, a move that would prevent the influx of more than $120 million in additional state funds over the next year to cash-strapped schools in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties. This fiscal year, Richmond is sending nearly $1 billion to those counties to fund operating costs in public schools.

The fate of the so-called composite index is tied to the state budget process, which will be negotiated in the coming legislative session. Kaine proposed the one-year delay in part because it would save $30 million statewide.

Tucker Martin, spokesman for Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell, said, "We are continuing to review the proposal in the context of the entire budget and how it impacts Northern Virginia and the other regions of the commonwealth."

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), a longtime critic of the index, said that making the system benefit Fairfax will be his top priority when the annual legislative session begins this week.

"We absolutely can't do anything that makes this rip-off formula worse. And delaying changes . . . that makes it worse," he said.

Virginia's funding formula is meant to distribute money equitably, so poor districts get more school funding from Richmond and wealthy districts get less. The result is that the state currently pays for less than 25 percent of Fairfax school's budget and closer to 80 percent for some other districts. Many in Northern Virginia have long found it unfair to shoulder such a large share of education costs locally and statewide.

Every two years, the formula is recalculated, using updated data on enrollment, income, retail sales and real estate values. This year, for once, several Northern Virginia districts stood to gain significantly more in state funding, largely because of dramatic declines in the housing market.

The news was welcomed by local school officials. But for more than 90 of the state's 136 school districts, the readjustment meant a greater local burden, and Kaine's proposal aimed to protect these vulnerable districts.

Northern Virginia officials, facing unprecedented cuts in their prized school systems, are crying foul.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) called Kaine's proposal a "kick in the teeth."

"We have played by the rules," she said. "And it's not fair to change the rules the very year that Fairfax would get some benefit from them."

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