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A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, February 27, 2006

Budget proposals contain similar education figures; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

It doesn’t matter whose budget gets passed. Schools in the Northern Shenandoah Valley are in line for millions in new state funding.

As Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the House of Delegates and the Senate scrap over which version of their two-year budgets will become the law of the land, the three have independently arrived at very similar numbers for area school funding.

Delegates approved their budget earlier this week in a 69-30 vote, while the Senate voted 39-1 in favor of its own plan. Both represent bipartisan, veto-proof majorities.

At budget time, “my primary concern was to ensure additional funding for our public schools in the Shenandoah Valley,” says Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, in a statement issued after the vote.

“This proposed budget accomplishes that goal without raising taxes during a time when Virginia’s economy is experiencing a 1.3 billion dollar budget surplus,” he said.

Democrats in the House weren’t quite as happy with the plan.

“The House budget is fiscally irresponsible and shortchanges a range of vital needs,” says House Minority Leader Franklin Hall, D-Richmond, in a prepared statement issued after the vote.

On the whole, he said, the House budget shorts education when compared to the Kaine and Senate plans.
Regardless of who’s talking, the plans are all a solid pop for the bottom line locally.

For Shenandoah County, the differences in fiscal 2007 are relatively small — $5.37 million in new funding from the House of Delegates, $5.38 million via the Kaine administration and $5.41 million from the Senate.

All three numbers represent roughly a 20 percent increase over funding levels in 2006, according to figures supplied by both houses and the administration, with a total appropriation of about $33 million.

That looks like good news for the county, where officials confirmed after a budget meeting that they were expecting only $4.1 million in new money from Richmond this fiscal year.

In Warren County, the news wasn’t as good, but it wasn’t bad, either. All three versions of the budget include about $2.5 million in new funding for the first half of the biennium.

“It’s not different than we had already built into our budget,” said Superintendent Pamela McInnis. Schools have been waiting on word from Richmond about the status of negotiations, but information has been slow to trickle out, she said.

Compared to what they were expecting, the new numbers are at worst a wash, she said.

“We’re talking a couple of thousand dollars here and there,” she said, not an insignificant amount, but small compared to a total appropriation of some $26 million for the year.

Even so, Warren would be slightly better off if negotiators lean toward the House plan, McInnis said.

“Even though it has the highest amount of money of [the plans],” she said, the Senate plan raises the level each system would have to contribute to retirement plans.

“Even though they give us more money … it’s going to cost us another $93,000” in retirement costs, she said.

Other systems in the area are also in line for comparable increases in all three plans. Frederick County would get a 17 percent bump in funding in all three, while Clarke gets 11 percent and Winchester gets 15 percent.

Frederick’s budget gets the largest overall first-year boost, at $8.9 million in all three plans, for a $62 million state contribution in fiscal 2007. Clarke County gets the least of the five local districts, about $850,000 in new money, in all three plans.

Further increases are included for all five systems in the second half of the budget.

Negotiators for both sides now have to sit down and hammer out a compromise that can pass both houses. Once that happens, it will go to Kaine for his signature and changes.

Legislators are scheduled to leave Richmond on March 11 and return in April to act on Kaine’s changes to their bills.