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School-level spending data released

Newly released state data puts a dollar figure on per-student public school spending for the first time.

The reports, which are accessible on the Virginia Department of Education’s website, break down per-pupil spending of local, state and federal funding for the 2018-2019 academic year. Although Virginia has reported district-level spending per student for decades, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 mandated the publication of data at the individual level.

Isle of Wight County Schools spent $9,913 per-pupil at the division level in 2018-2019. The statewide average spending for the same time frame was $11,560. For the upcoming 2020-2021 year, the division has budgeted spending $12,089 per student.

In 2018-2019, per-pupil spending at Smithfield High was closest to the division-wide average, at $9,914. The highest per-student spending that year was at Windsor High, where the division spent $11,357.

“Distilling per-pupil expenditure data down to the school level was a challenge for both the department and our school divisions,” James Lane, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a news release. “But I believe it was a challenge well worth undertaking as parents and other members of the public are now able to see how local, state and federal funds flow to the building level. This new transparency will help inform important conversations across the state about equity in meeting the needs of all learners.”

Lynn Briggs, the local school division’s spokeswoman, said it is not yet clear how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect per-pupil spending for the upcoming academic year. “We won’t have the actual amount finalized until September, which is based on actual spending versus what was budgeted,” Briggs said.

The division’s overall budget for the upcoming year is $67.24 million.

“We have purchased materials for (virus) mitigation, such as wipes, hand sanitizer, water bottle filling stations,” Briggs said. “At this time, we are working with the allotted funding for the 2020-2021 school year.” When parents decide if they’ll send their kids back to school in person or follow a virtual learning plan, “we will have a better idea of changes that may be occurring and their impact on spending,” such as fuel for buses, Briggs said.

The needs of each of the county’s nine public schools, along with enrollment projections and anticipated staff needs, are some of the metrics that influence per-student spending in Isle of Wight.

“Equity is very important and played a major role in the plan to build a new elementary school for Hardy and Westside,” Briggs said. “If you look at those two facilities and compare them to other elementary schools in the county, children zoned for those schools do not have the same educational experience as others.”

“For example, the gym at Hardy is very small and is the only one not equipped for indoor sports like basketball,” Briggs said. “We want every child, regardless of their street address, to have similar opportunities for learning while in school.”

As with most data, context matters. At smaller schools such as Windsor High, which had about 520 total students in 2018-2019, the economies of scale can skew the data.

“For example, Georgie Tyler Middle School has one principal, one nurse, one librarian, and two office staff,” Briggs said. “So does Carrollton Elementary, Hardy Elementary, Windsor High and Smithfield Middle, which are larger schools. When you divide the costs for those positions over the number of students at each school, you will see a high per pupil amount at the schools with smaller populations.”

“Someone may look at the numbers and think we are budgeting more money for certain schools, but it may be a way of providing equitable staffing throughout the division,” said Briggs. Implementing state or federal mandates can also affect per-student costs at a school.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the purpose behind collecting and presenting the data isn’t to lead people to jump to conclusions but rather to serve as a starting point for important community conversations about where money flows in education.

Pyle said Virginia has reported per-pupil spending at the district level for generations but “what we’ve never done before is distill per-pupil spending down to the school level.” This data is “a powerful tool for school districts to look at their school-level per-pupil spending in a way that they haven’t been able to look at it before and have the ability to make apples to apples comparisons among their schools.”

 Local education spending

A breakdown of per student spending in the 2018-2019 academic year by school in the Isle of Wight County Schools division

Carrollton Elementary: $9,127

Carrsville Elementary: $11,256

Hardy Elementary: $9,586

Westside Elementary: $9,620

Windsor Elementary: $9,590

Georgie D. Tyler Middle: $9,703

Smithfield Middle: $10,201

Smithfield High: $9,914

Windsor High: $11,357

Source: Virginia Department of Education