Va. Budget Item Could Threaten Funds for At-Risk Kids

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP

    The House of Delegates' and Senate's budget proposals each would cut state public education funding less drastically than Gov. Bob McDonnell's would, but many school districts know they'll be cutting jobs and educational programs.

    Virginia's superintendents are weighing different funding scenarios as they plan the next school year's budgets. Districts that are largely dependent on the state to cover their K-12 costs are warning their communities what's to come.

    "Layoffs are going to happen, there's no question about that," said Scott Kinzer, superintendent in Martinsville, where the state has covered about 75 percent of local school funding.

    The two chambers and McDonnell have different plans for cuts on top of the $1.2 billion in cuts already proposed by former Gov. Timothy Kaine: The Senate proposes cutting $133 million for K-12 over two years; the House seeks to cut about $620 million, but would allow local school districts to reduce the amount they have to contribute to employee pensions by about $270 million annually, for net cuts of about $80 million; and McDonnell wants to cut $731 million more from K-12.

    Kizner and other superintendents in divisions that have a high percentage of low-income and at-risk children are especially concerned about a House proposal to save about $50 million by establishing a block-grant system to use lottery proceeds to pay for programs that help those students. The funding would be redistributed by a per-pupil amount for an entire division's population, rather than the current method of funding just at-risk students.

    Under the proposed change, for example, Norfolk's public schools would lose almost $8.7 million in funding for pre-kindergarten, early-reading intervention and other programs benefiting at-risk children in the 2011 fiscal year, and Richmond's schools would lose $6.9 million. Both divisions serve mainly low-income students, with 62 percent of Norfolk's students and 75 percent of Richmond's students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

    Andrew Block, legal director of the JustChildren advocacy group, said the reallocation improperly values a school system's size rather than its level of need, and would cause further damage to some school districts that can afford it the least.

    "No one is disputing that all school systems need resources, whether you're Fairfax County or Petersburg, but it doesn't make sense to hammer the districts with high percentages of at-risk children," Block said. "This benefits localities with more wealth."

    Affluent Fairfax County would gain nearly $2.9 million in the 2011 fiscal year under the block-grant proposal, while Petersburg -- where 77 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch -- would lose nearly $1.3 million.

    Kizner, Martinsville's superintendent, said that his district has made great strides over the last several years at raising graduation rates, lowering dropout levels and achieving federal benchmarks, thanks in large part to programs that target at-risk students. He said that losing nearly $1 million over two years to operate critical early-childhood initiatives would be tough to make up on the local level.

    It also would be another setback in a city where the textile industry once boomed but now is experiencing 20 percent unemployment, high teenage pregnancy rates and other woes.

    "I'm aware of the economic times we're in, but the decisions we make today are generational," he said. "What you say goodbye to today is hard to get back."

    Cutting vital programs for at-risk children runs counter to making education a priority for Southside Virginia's long-term economic development, he said.

    "You have to invest in education, and you have to invest in the families and young people in Martinsville if you're truly going to have a strong work force and people who are paying taxes and are otherwise productive," he said.