RICHMOND, AUG. 22 -- Virginia Education Secretary James W. Dyke Jr. said today that the Wilder administration does not know yet how it will slash more than $170 million in state aid to education and that local school officials will have to wait three months to see how the cuts will affect them.
The administration's continued vagueness about its budget plans drew sharp criticism today from Northern Virginia school and government officials, who said they need hard numbers now to start planning.
"Quite literally, we haven't begun to focus in on it," Dyke said in an interview. "I would suspect we'd have something by late November or early December."
"It's frustrating," said Prince William County School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly, chief of Virginia's fourth-largest system. "You have a certain amount of frenzied activity. But without real numbers, you can't tell how much frenzy there should or shouldn't be."
Wilder announced last week that school systems around the state would have to give up about $173 million in state aid -- about a 5 percent cut -- as part of his campaign to slash state spending by almost $1.4 billion. But he also said he will target the cuts so that gaps between the state's richest and poorest school systems won't be widened.
In the absence of details, officials in Northern Virginia's relatively well-off localities assume that they will bear the heaviest share of the burden.
"It's all so vague and nonspecific," said Fairfax County school spokeswoman Dolores Bohen. "It's like bracing yourself for the inevitable, but you don't know what the inevitable is."
"I must admit, I wasn't aware of that," Dyke said of the frustration from Northern Virginia. "We may have to move the schedule up."
Dyke said he is waiting before announcing his plan for education cuts so he can consult with more people about the fairest way to achieve savings. In particular, he said, he plans to meet with the members of a commission appointed by Wilder to propose solutions to Virginia's "educational disparity" problem.
Kelly said he and other Northern Virginia educators are worried that Wilder's announcement that not all localities will bear the burden of cuts equally will lead to arbitrary cuts that will unfairly punish the Washington suburbs.
If educational aid must be cut by 5 percent, then state officials should simply cut the money each locality receives by 5 percent, Kelly argued.
"What are you going to substitute for the formula?" Kelly asked. "Somebody's gut feeling?"
State aid to school districts is distributed by an elaborate formula that takes into account the relative wealth of the districts. The poorest localities in Southwest Virginia, for example, get nearly 75 percent of their local educational costs from the state, while a wealthy locality such as Fairfax County gets help with just over 30 percent of its costs.
But Wilder, many other state legislators and some rural school districts have said they fear the formula does not go far enough to reduce disparities, and that Virginia is at risk of being sued -- as has happened in at least a dozen other states -- if it doesn't act soon to reduce the gaps between the best and worst school systems.
Laura Dillard, Wilder's press secretary, said the governor "ought to be commended" for announcing well in advance of this winter's General Assembly session the dimension of Virginia's fiscal problems.
But critics, including some key members of the General Assembly, said Wilder has created unneeded confusion. By appearing on statewide television to talk about the state's finances, he convinced people that he was serious about cutting spending and not raising taxes, but failed to provide enough details for the public to assess his plan, they say.
"That's what the localities and the public want to know -- the fine print," said state Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), who has pressed state finance officials for more facts.
Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert said he has had to rely on his own best guesses about how the state's problems will affect Virginia's most populous locality. He estimated that it will lose about $40 million in state funding for education and other local programs during the current two-year budget cycle.
Lambert said he too is eager for the administration to get more specific. Wilder "turned on the television, but the picture is still fuzzy," he said.