State error could cost Isle of Wight, Surry school budgets $1 million through 2024

Published 12:40 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Isle of Wight and Surry county schools may have used “overly generous” estimates due to a state error when factoring expected state money into their budgets – an error that could cost the two school systems’ budgets a collective $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.

Surry, which has just over 600 students compared to Isle of Wight’s roughly 5,500, had budgeted around $20.8 million for the current year, with nearly $3.2 million coming from state funds and more than half of the total coming from county tax dollars.

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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. The error will reduce Surry’s estimated state payments by just over $12,600 for the current year and $32,000 for 2023-24.

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.

“We are diligently working to make adjustments to cover this error,” Surry Superintendent Serbrenia Sims said.

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. 

Surry County – which had 240 students enrolled at Surry Elementary last year, 50 of them in third grade – would need a minimum of 2.08 third-grade teachers to meet the one-per-24 ratio but actually employs four.

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.