Virginia public schools are seeing an early drop in enrollment. It could put millions in state funding at risk.

Virginia public schools are seeing an early drop in enrollment. It could put millions in state funding at risk.
Goochland public schools opened last month under a fully virtual plan, with only a few students with limited internet access at home reporting to school buildings. (Source: Goochland County Public Schools)

Since the start of the school year in August, Radford City Schools have lost around 75 students compared to enrollment counts last May, according to district Superintendent Robert Graham. Across the state in Middlesex County, public schools are down roughly 47 students, said Superintendent Pete Gretz.

Attendance at King William County Public Schools has dropped about 150 students, according to Superintendent David White. Those districts are far from alone. An early survey by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents — which captured responses from 113 of the state’s 133 divisions — found that public schools are facing an enrollment loss of 35,000 students so far this year.

Collectively, that drop represents a prospective loss of $146 million in basic aid funding from the state, which is based on student attendance counts — known as “average daily membership” — in September and March, said VASS Executive Director Ben Kiser. If the cuts go through, schools say they’ll be forced to make tough decisions on everything from operations to staff.

“If we don’t see significant improvement, then that’s a significant loss of potential revenue,” he added. “And if the General Assembly makes budget decisions based on current data, we worry they’ll have long-lasting impacts not only this budget year, but possibly the next biennium.”

As schools across Virginia grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the early loss of students is just another challenge in an increasingly dire financial landscape. Kiser said school administrators were already concerned over a projected decline in sales tax revenue — one percent of which flows back to local districts — that could result in a total reduction of $95 million for schools across the state.

Earlier this year, legislators also passed budget language setting stricter requirements on how local divisions use state lottery funds — a significant part of their operating budgets. The new mandate requires that at least 40 percent of that funding is used for “nonrecurring” school costs such as construction, renovations, or new technology by the second year of the state’s biennial spending plan.

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