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Schools funding reviewed

BY CHELYEN DAVIS

RICHMOND—Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania and Culpeper counties could lose some public education dollars if state lawmakers adjust funding for a program that benefits Northern Virginia school districts.the “cost of competing” funding provided to Northern Virginia school districts.

State Sen. Walter Stosch, R–Henrico, had asked the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study the “cost of competing” adjustment after lawmakers fought over the funding in their budget debates early this year, and the governor had proposed eliminating it for some positions or tying it to a study like JLARC’s.

The JLARC study, presented to the commission on Monday, proposes redefining which localities receive cost of competing that money. Its definitions would leave out Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg and Culpeper.

Those proposals are not in the form of a bill, and while JLARC members discussed the study’s proposals, they did not indicate whether they would pursue changing the cost of competing adjustment formula.

The cost-of-competing program was started in the 1990s to help Northern Virginia school divisions provide competitive salaries in a region that had the highest cost of living and highest salaries in the state. It essentially adds extra money to the amount those school divisions receive from the state.

It was later expanded to include localities outside the immediate Northern Virginia area, including Stafford, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg and Culpeper.

 Those four localities—along with others like Fauquier and Winchester —receive a smaller percentage of cost-of-competing money than localities closer to Washington, D.C.

Now, 18 localities receive some funding from the programlevel of cost of competing money. In the nine localities closest to D.C., the cost of competing adjustment typically adds 9.83 percent to the school division’s budget for instructional staffing, and 24.6 percent for support staffing, which covers everyone from principals to janitors.

In outer localities such as Stafford and Spotsylvania, the percentage for instructional staffing is smaller, at 2.46 percent.

For localities such as Fairfax, that 9.83 percent is around $4.4 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year; it’s much less for outer localities.

For example, Stafford’s portion of the 2.46 percent adjustment for the fiscal year is around $340,887. It’s $279,240 for Spotsylvania, $90,767 for Culpeper and $19,552 for Fredericksburg.

According to the JLARC report, the average hourly wages in the D.C. metropolitan area—which includes some counties in Maryland—are 36 percent higher than those elsewhere in Virginia. The cost of living there is 25 percent higher.

School divisions generally pay higher wages the closer they are to D.C., the JLARC report said. By the time you get to localities 50 miles or more away from D.C., the salaries are not that different from the state average, the report said, although Spotsylvania and King George counties both pay higher than the state average, while Fredericksburg pays less.

Cost of competing money isn’t applied directly to staff salaries, and many Northern Virginia divisions pay higher salaries than the cost of competing money would cover.

For instance, the report said that in 2011 the average elementary school teacher salary statewide was $43,904. The cost of competing adjustment would be about $4,316. But the average elementary school teacher salary in Northern Virginia was $60,711, much higher than any increase the cost of competing adjustment would pay for.

The JLARC report said the cost of competing adjustment seems justified in most Northern Virginia school divisions, but questioned it for the outlying districts, like Fredericksburg.

The JLARC report suggested using different ways to define which school divisions need the cost of competing funds—mileage from D.C., as well as using regional wage estimates, or average salaries within the school division.

If lawmakers change the cost of competing adjustment formula as proposed by JLARC, it would mean that Stafford might keep its cost of competing adjustment, but that Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg and Culpeper would not.

But changing it could actually cost the state more money. Currently the state spends about $98 million for the cost of competing adjustment, the JLARC report said. Changing and updating it could mean that the adjustment would cost more like $140 million to $340 million, depending on how the state calculated it.

 Chelyen Davis:  540/368-5028

cdavis@freelancestar.com

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