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

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010; B04

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."

But Kaine's $76.8 billion spending plan is only a proposal. McDonnell and the legislature are expected to make changes before it is approved.

At a hearing Saturday at the Fairfax County Government Center, Bulova urged the county's Richmond delegation to protest any delay to the adjusted state funding plan. School board members and parents gave the same message at a hearing Friday before state lawmakers at the Annandale Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

Fairfax public schools would gain $61 million from the adjusted funding formula, according to state figures. The adjusted figure was not included in the budget that Superintendent Jack D. Dale presented Thursday, and it's slightly higher than what he requested from the county to stave off deep cuts and changes in the state's largest school district, including dramatic increases in class size and a rollback of full-day kindergarten. The state funded $416 million of Fairfax's $2.2 billion budget for the current fiscal year.

Loudoun public schools would get an additional $34 million, and Prince William would receive $22 million more. In Loudoun, the state funded $178 million of its $732.6 million budget this year. And in Prince William, Richmond provided nearly $361 million of its $786 million budget.

Manassas City could get a boost of $3 million and Manassas Park, $1.1 million. The difference in Arlington County and Alexandria would be in the tens of thousands.

"The local composite index is either something we believe in and we do, or we don't. By delaying it, we call into question the whole way funds are distributed," said Loudoun Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, who is scheduled to release his budget Tuesday. Hatrick said there are school systems in much poorer parts of the state that would also miss out on additional funding under Kaine's plan.

The formula is complicated, but its effect is not lost on many Fairfax parents who are increasingly organizing to oppose class size increases and program cuts.

Michelle Nellenbach, a mother of two in the Mount Vernon area, held a rally with about a dozen other parents outside Northern Virginia Community College before Friday's hearing to urge legislators to reject a delay to the adjusted funding formula.

The group plans to go to Richmond to visit legislators for a day in early February. "People have told us to go ask Richmond for the money back. So we're going to Richmond."

Staff writer Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.

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