Fewer Students, More State Funding in Northampton Schools Budget

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By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton County Public Schools Superintendent Eddie Lawrence presented the school division’s fiscal year 2022 operating budget to county supervisors April 13, sharing both the challenges that were faced in writing the budget and his hope for the future of funding local K-12 public education.

The budget was based on a projected average daily membership (ADM) of 1,350 students, down from 1,400 this year.

Estimating next year’s ADM was difficult because of a reduction in ADM this year due to COVID-19, and “we really don’t know how many of our students that are virtual or who have gone to private school will come back next year,” Lawrence said.

He reviewed Northampton’s composite index, a number intended to represent how much a locality can afford to pay for its public education.

Northampton’s composite index of approximately .46 means that for every dollar of the cost of its public education – not counting federal funding – Northampton is expected to pay 46 cents, a threshold which the county consistently exceeds, Lawrence said.

Because the county is land rich and cash poor, Northampton ends up with a composite index higher than cities like Virginia Beach and Chesapeake.

But that could be getting ready to change for the better. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), which provides oversight of state agencies on behalf of the Virginia General Assembly, will conduct a study this year on the composite index.

JLARC is “realizing that there are counties out there like Northampton where the formula just doesn’t capture a realistic picture of economic activity in the county,” Lawrence said.

The expectation is that following the study, the composite index will be changed to be more “equitable” for small, rural school divisions, he said.

Virginia’s budget included the state’s share of the cost to provide public school teachers and employees a 5% raise, which has been included in Northampton schools’ budget.

Gov. Ralph Northam had included $2.7 million is his proposed state budget for Northampton and Accomack counties to receive a Cost of Competing Adjustment or COCA, funding traditionally given to Northern Virginia counties that compete with the Washington, D.C., area when recruiting teachers.

The General Assembly removed that funding allocation from its final budget but offered a compromise: one-time funding of $2 million for Accomack and Northampton (of which Northampton’s share is $362,000) to make permanent adjustments to teacher salary scales to help recruit and retain teachers.

One reason the General Assembly offered the funding was that the Northampton school division had never turned down state funding in the past, said Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas.

She expects Northampton and Accomack’s representatives in the General Assembly (Del. Rob Bloxom and Sen. Lynwood Lewis) will continue to lobby for permanent funding through COCA.

Thomas would not normally suggest using one-time funding for recurring expenses, but she and the superintendent recommended supervisors accept the offer from the state.

Lawrence said, “If we don’t take advantage of this to work on our pay scale, the danger we run is pretty simple. The state legislature may look at us and say, ‘Well, they’re not really serious about improving their teacher pay.’”

Supervisor John Coker agreed accepting the one-time funding is a “calculated risk” that should be taken.

After Northampton schools eliminated some funding requests from its budget, a shortfall of about $159,000 remained, which the school division asked supervisors to cover and would bring the county’s annual contribution to the school system to about $9 million, an increase of less than 1%.

Supervisors did not make an immediate decision on the proposed budget, but Chairman Dixon Leatherbury commended Northampton schools for its “amazing” ability to keep schools open and keep kids safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as other school divisions around the state and country struggled.

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