The Fauquier County School Board expects to hear today how an undercount occurred in the triennial school census, a mistake that could cost the county more than $1.1 million over the next three years in sales tax revenue from the state.
Board members also could hear whether state education officials will do the unexpected and grant an extraordinary exception to the rules that would allow the mistake to be corrected. County budget officials said the effects of the undercount in the census taken during spring already are being felt.
Because the Fauquier schools did not count 734 school-age children, out of a correct total of 10,827, the county will lose at least $383,882 each year, for a total of $1.15 million. The amount could be even higher, said Bryan Tippie, county budget director, because sales tax revenue usually increases each year.
"It's a stinky mistake," said Tippie, whose office discovered the undercount in November while estimating county revenue for the Board of Supervisors as it prepared for budget hearings.
While taking responsibility for the error, School Superintendent Dallas M. Johnson said in an interview Tuesday that the mistake was the result of faulty instructions given by a former school official, James Snyder, who last year resigned from the school system after allegedly improper use of the Internet.
Snyder, who was assistant superintendent for administration when the census was taken, was principal at Grace Miller Elementary School in Bealeton when he resigned two months ago. He could not be reached for comment.
Snyder's alleged lapse could complicate the relationship between the supervisors and School Board members as they enter budget talks. Last year's budget negotiations turned nasty and left the two boards at odds. This year, Johnson is requesting a budget increase of $3.7 million over last year's $68.9 million.
"It's sad," Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott) said of the census mistake. "But my position is that [the shortfall] will not be made up by any other department."
Newly appointed School Board Chairman Broni Lambelet (Marshall), said the undercount "is not excusable . . . It's a consequence that we have to live with. But it's not one I intend to live with a second time around."
Daniel S. Timberlake, the state schools assistant superintendent for finance, said the state will not accept new census figures, because they would be derived outside the window--March 1 to July 15--in which the figures must be taken. He said he had consulted with the state Attorney General's Office on the matter.
"As a rule, we do not take any additional information," Timberlake said. Other schools divisions that have had similar undercounts have not been successful in persuading the state to grant exceptions, he said.
In a Dec. 21 memo to County Administrator G. Robert Lee, Tippie said his office discovered the error when he compared the count from the 1999 census--10,093--with the count from the 1996 census, 10,578. Because other indicators showed that the county had been growing, Tippie wrote, "it was clear that the 1999 census was understated."
Johnson was contacted and, "despite the school superintendent's intense efforts, the Department of Education has not agreed to accept a revised census from Fauquier County," Tippie wrote in his memo.
Johnson said he has learned that Snyder instructed census takers not to count the local private school population when figuring the total population. "I contacted the [census takers] individually. They told me he told them they didn't need to count any further," Johnson said.
It is the lack of the private schools count that accounts for the shortfall and would result in a total school-age population of 10,827. The public school traditionally receives money based on the total student population, including home-schooled and privately educated children.
Lee said in an interview that it was shocking that schools officials did not question the notion that the schools population had decreased. Supervisor Joe Winkelmann (R-Center) called it "incompetence." At the time of the census, Johnson was recuperating from open-heart surgery and was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the schools.
After Johnson was rebuffed by state school officials late last month, Lee appealed to Del. Jay K. Katzen (R-Fauquier) to try to get the extra funds. A spokeswoman for Katzen said Tuesday that he had not heard from state officials whether such an adjustment could be made.
County Attorney Paul S. McCulla has been directed to look into whether the county could sue the state and force them to accept the correct information. He said he would have an opinion ready for supervisors within the "next few weeks." Whatever the case, the undercount's effects are immediate, Tippie said, because the disbursement of sales tax revenue kicks in during the calendar year and not when the school and county budget years begin in the spring.
"So we're not getting that money right now," Tippie said.
Lambelet became board chairman on the first ballot at the School Board meeting Monday night. She succeeds outgoing chairman Mary Charles Ashby, a longtime incumbent who was defeated by newcomer William G. Downey IV (Scott). Lambelet was elected on the votes of Downey and John E. Williams (Center). New member Gary A. Maloche (Cedar Run) and incumbent Ernest L. Gray Jr. (Lee) abstained from the vote.