State error could cost Isle of Wight school budget nearly $1 million through 2024

Published 3:45 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2023

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Isle of Wight County Schools may have used an “overly generous” estimate due to a state error when factoring expected state money into its budget – an error that could cost IWCS nearly $1 million through 2024.

Isle of Wight had budgeted $78.1 million for the current school year, with $43.6 million of the total coming from state funds. The $43.6 million estimate was based on a formula known as the “composite index,” which calculates a school division’s ability to pay the costs associated with meeting state-mandated minimum staffing levels based on enrollment.

In June, after months of negotiations, Virginia’s Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed the 2022-24 Appropriations Act, which included final dollar amounts allocated to each of the state’s 132 school divisions.

According to Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle, each school division has been receiving the full amount specified in the Appropriations Act via bimonthly payments. But spreadsheets the VDOE had provided to schools ahead of the final Appropriations Act vote, and in December for 2023-24 budgeting purposes, contained an error that would return “overly generous” estimates “if they didn’t notice on their own that something was wrong,” Pyle explained.

According to a memorandum state Superintendent of Education Jillian Balow sent to division superintendents on Jan. 27, the spreadsheets neglected to factor in a “hold harmless” payment that began this school year to offset the impact to school divisions from the Jan. 1 elimination of the state’s 1.5% sales tax on groceries.

“We became aware of this last week,” Pyle said, attributing the mistake to “human error.”

The impact of the error will reduce Isle of Wight’s estimated state payments by a total of roughly $282,000 for the current school year and $697,000 for 2023-24, Pyle said.

Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs said it’s “far too early” to determine what impact the error will have on IWCS. The school division is set to participate in a call Wednesday with Balow to discuss the issue.

At a September joint meeting of Isle of Wight County supervisors and the School Board, local officials contended the state – even before the error was discovered – wasn’t funding local school divisions enough to meet their staffing needs. IWCS has 739 employees this school year across nine schools and its central office but is only required to employ 537.24 under the state’s “standards of quality” or “SOQ” minimum staffing formula.

Virginia’s Board of Education, a nine-member body appointed by the governor, mandates one teacher per 24 students in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, one per 25 for fourth- through sixth-grade classrooms, and one per 21 at the middle and high school levels. Based on the current SOQ teacher-to-student ratios and a divisionwide enrollment of just over 2,400 students in kindergarten through fifth grade during the 2021-22 school year, Isle of Wight is required to staff 15.35 third-grade teachers but actually employs 19, IWCS Human Resources Director Laura Sullivan told board members at the joint meeting.

Most Virginia school divisions exceed the staffing minimums prescribed by the SOQ formula, Pyle confirmed to The Smithfield Times last year.

Isle of Wight School Board Chairman John Collick told the Times on Wednesday that he’d just learned of the issues and had been provided with no additional details.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the VDOE error will have a $201 million impact on school budgets statewide, including a $58 million impact for the current school year.