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Budget planning for schools will be more difficult because of Covid-19

Tens of thousands of students didn't enroll in public schools during the pandemic, throwing a wrench in budget planning.

A presentation by budget planners Tuesday revealed the extra obstacles school closures face to education funding, two years out.

During a House Appropriations Committee meeting, staffers explained to lawmakers how they will likely have a harder time than usual crunching the numbers when they plan for Education funding in the state budget.

Every two years, the General Assembly reassesses how much money it needs to spend on schools, in a process called rebenchmarking. Lawmakers look back two years, see how much money was spent, and start from there. For 2022 they have to look back to 2020, which was a highly unusual year and probably the most unusual year in policymakers’ memory.

Fewer substitute teachers, and lower utility and transportation costs meant less spending in 2020. So those numbers can’t easily be used for 2022.

Lower enrollment also causes another obstacle. In 2022 about 33,000 fewer students are forecast to be enrolled in Virginia’s public schools. The state allocates money to local school divisions based on enrollment numbers.

Conditions on federal aid further complicate the process. Virginia needs to spend $3 billion in Coronavirus aid faster than it is now: only 6% or $180 million has been reimbursed. Virginia has to use those promised funds by 2025. Supply chain issues and labor shortages are slowing down some of the potential projects.

On top of all of this, there’s the incoming Governor’s agenda. Glenn Youngkin spoke a lot about education on the campaign trail and promised the largest education budget ever. In his opening budget, he will have to take all of these factors into account.

Lawmakers are however, coming in with an unprecedented $4.6 billion in surplus revenue, according to committee staff. Much of the state portion of that money is required by law to be deposited into budgetary reserves and specific funds, and the federal money has its own requirements, making the practical amount of surplus revenues less than it appears.

Staffers recommended using the extraordinary funds on one-time investments, since its unlikely such a surplus windfall could become permanent.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.