Few topics associated with Chesterfield government are more misunderstood than funding for public K-12 education. As the Board of Supervisors prepares to hold public hearings on the county’s proposed FY2024 budget at its meeting Wednesday evening, we think it’s an ideal time to dispel some pervasive myths about this important issue.
MYTH: Chesterfield ranks near the bottom of Virginia localities for per-pupil school spending
REALITY: The method by which Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) calculates per-pupil spending incorporates only expenditures for what the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) defines as “Regular Day School”: administration, instruction, attendance and health services, pupil transportation, and operations and maintenance.
For fiscal year 2021, CCPS spent a total of $653.3 million in these five categories. With an average daily membership of 59,931, that came out to $10,902 per pupil, good for 130th of 132 Virginia school divisions.
That doesn’t tell the entire story, however.
VDOE tracks school-related expenditures in several categories that aren’t captured in the Regular Day School calculation – most notably, facilities major maintenance and debt service, which effectively is the mortgage CCPS pays on its school buildings.
CCPS spent $183.8 million in those two categories alone during FY2021. When you add in food services and other smaller items, the school division’s total expenditures were $865.4 million, or $14,441 per pupil.
That ranked 63rd in Virginia – squarely in the middle – and was higher than or comparable to its peers. As one of the largest school divisions in the state, CCPS benefits from economies of scale that reduce overhead costs and allow it to operate more efficiently than those in less populous jurisdictions.
On top of that, the Chesterfield government supports schools on a year-round basis – not just when the county’s budget is approved in April – and a significant amount of that supplemental funding also is not included in the school division’s Regular Day School formula. During FY21, that total was $212 million, or an additional $3,537 per pupil.
Since then, the CCPS budget has grown by an additional $207 million, or 27% -- including the three largest increases in the annual general fund transfer to schools in Chesterfield’s history.
All county schools are fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education. Along with graduation rates and other outcome-based data, that suggests Chesterfield taxpayers are getting a good return on investment.
MYTH: Chesterfield doesn’t prioritize education like Northern Virginia localities do
REALITY: Virginia allocates K-12 education funding based on a little-known formula known as the Local Composite Index (LCI), which uses several different economic factors to determine each jurisdiction’s ability to fund its public schools relative to state Standards of Quality (SOQ).
According to the LCI, Arlington is required to provide 80 cents of every $1 it spends on public education. For two other large NoVa counties, Fairfax and Loudoun, it’s 65 and 54 cents, respectively.
By comparison, Chesterfield’s share of the school funding responsibility under the state formula is calculated at 35 cents.
Because local leaders agree that the Standards of Quality don’t accurately reflect the number of classroom-based positions needed to operate a first-class school division, however, the county annually provides CCPS with funding that far exceeds what is mandated under the LCI.
Chesterfield fully funds more than 800 teaching positions for CCPS annually, including salaries and benefits.
In the proposed FY24 budget, the additional county funding for schools totals $170 million. For perspective, that represents about 30 cents on Chesterfield’s real estate tax rate.
MYTH: Chesterfield’s teachers are underpaid compared to their peers in Northern Virginia
REALITY: Education is a people-intensive business, meaning most school funding is allocated to salaries and benefits for teachers and other school-based personnel. Compensation varies significantly across Virginia based largely on regional differences in cost of living.
As of FY21, the average teacher salary in Arlington was $81,032. For Fairfax and Loudoun, it was $76,559 and $76,217, respectively.
Increasing the average salary for Chesterfield’s teachers (which was $54,558 in FY2021) to match Loudoun’s would require a 20-cent increase in the real estate tax rate.
Recognizing the challenges of recruiting and retaining high-quality educators, though, Chesterfield invested a combined $79 million in FY2022-23 to implement both phases of a new teacher pay plan.
Chesterfield is now the leader among peer school divisions in the Richmond region on all but the first two steps of the 30-year teacher pay scale – and the proposed FY24 budget accommodates a 7% salary increase that will keep CCPS in that position relative to its market competitors.
MYTH: Chesterfield’s funding for new school construction isn’t keeping up with growth
REALITY: Even during a period of soaring costs for building materials and labor, CCPS has completed construction of nine elementary schools and two middle schools since August 2018, all on time and under budget.
That doesn’t include the two new middle schools that were approved for $136 million in bond funding in 2021 – one in the western Route 360 corridor to alleviate capacity issues at Tomahawk Creek Middle, as well as a larger, modern replacement for Falling Creek Middle that is currently under construction.
Last November, Chesterfield voters overwhelmingly approved another $375 million in bond issuances for a slate of school capital projects, including a new high school and another new elementary school in western Route 360, replacement of Midlothian Middle and expansion of Thomas Dale High’s main campus.
Through its use of the new StratIS tool, Chesterfield is projecting residential growth earlier and more accurately than ever before, which has improved its ability to identify needed school facilities and shortened the timetable to bring them online.
CCPS administration also has increased the design capacity of all new elementary, middle and high schools to 1,000, 1,800 and 2,400 seats, respectively. That will create additional classroom space countywide and accommodating future enrollment growth.
MYTH: Chesterfield can easily increase school funding without raising taxes
REALITY: Despite the fact that only about 3 in 10 Chesterfield households currently have school-age children, K-12 education accounts for 50.4% of the county’s proposed $1.94 billion budget for FY2024.
The $383.4 million general fund transfer to CCPS represents a $20 million increase from FY2023 – the largest year-over-year increase in Chesterfield’s history.
Putting that into perspective, the schools transfer is greater than the next 17 largest line items in the county’s proposed budget combined.
By comparison, funding for Chesterfield’s three public safety agencies (police, fire and sheriff) accounts for 12.8% of the proposed budget.
Allocating stable, long-term support to the CCPS remains the top priority for the local government, while also striking a balance with competing priorities and providing comprehensive tax relief to Chesterfield households adversely impacted by rising costs at the grocery store and gas pump.
The county and school division also are pursuing a joint legislative agenda in advocating for the state to increase K-12 education funding.