McDonnell directing more education money to N.Va.

By Anita Kumar and Fredrick Kunkle
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

RICHMOND -- In one of his first decisions on the state's two-year budget, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell sided with Northern Virginia, the vote-rich region that helped him secure his landslide victory in November, by sending it more school dollars.

The Republican governor announced that he will oppose a freeze in the adjustment to the school-funding formula proposed by his predecessor -- Timothy M. Kaine (D) -- that would have cost cash-strapped schools in Northern Virginia nearly $140 million.

The decision marked a significant victory for Northern Virginia , whose legislators, local officials and business leaders had spent weeks lobbying the governor.

"Northern Virginia doesn't get close to its fair share,'' said Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon). "[But] we expect to be treated consistently from year to year and expect historical agreements to be honored. This is a step in the right direction."

As Northern Virginia was celebrating, other areas across the state were in mourning -- or mobilizing.

"It's a sudden loss for us," said Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent James G. Merrill, whose district is the largest in Hampton Roads. His proposed budget includes $32 million in cuts and was built around the proposed freeze. Now it appears that nearly $15 million has vanished overnight in a district already considering furloughs and more-crowded classes.

Kaine suggested freezing the so-called local composite index -- the formula that determines state and local education funding -- to save money as the state faces a $4.2 billion shortfall over the next two years.

Unfreezing the formula will cost about $29 million for the year starting July 1. McDonnell proposes paying for the change by transferring money from a variety of accounts that are collected from fees, fines and unclaimed property and pay for employee health insurance and federal identification regulations.

"Ensuring that we have a fair formula that is implemented without regard to temporary or political considerations is the best means by which to appropriate education funding in the Commonwealth,'' McDonnell said in a statement.

The House and Senate still need to include the change in their budgets, which will be released Feb. 21. But McDonnell has spoken to legislators, and his advisers said they are confident the change will be included.

"He crisscrossed Northern Virginia during the campaign,'' Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart said. "He understands the importance of the region to Virginia. I think it was the politically courageous thing to do."

Outrage over Kaine's proposal united Northern Virginia's business community, educators, parent-teacher groups and homeowners associations. The concern also did something unusual in these hyper-partisan times: The proposal united the General Assembly's delegation across party lines.

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