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Virginia Board of Education backs $10M for lab schools despite possible budget cut

The Virginia Board of Education approved $10 million in start-up funds for two new lab schools Thursday, although the state legislature’s budget agreement removed all lab school funding for the next two years.

Senate Finance Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said she wonders how the board will pay for the lab schools.

“I think it will be counterproductive (to ongoing budget discussions) because we don’t have any money in the budget for the lab schools,” Lucas said in an interview. “We took it out.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned in 2021 on advancing school choice in Virginia, but the only significant school choice initiative to take off since his inauguration is his signature lab school program.

Lab schools are partnerships between universities, school divisions and sometimes businesses that provide nonreligious education to K-12 students. They are open to the public and do not charge tuition. Similar to charter schools, they can set their own budgets and curricula. Although lab schools receive public funding, they are expected to be financially self-sufficient within a few years.

Youngkin still must hammer out a budget agreement with the General Assembly, which passed its version of the spending plan on March 9, the last day of the legislative session.

The budget the General Assembly approved did not include Youngkin’s proposal for an additional $60 million for lab schools. It also reallocated to the state’s general fund the $85.1 million of unused lab school funding from the original $100 million allocation in 2022.

“From our perspective, there’s been no proof that they work,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, a member of the Senate Finance panel. “It just looks like another effort to defund public schools,” said Deeds, who was a Senate budget negotiator.

Youngkin could veto the General Assembly’s proposal to transfer the unused lab school funding back to the state’s general fund, but he cannot add the $60 million in additional funding to the budget.

The Democratic-controlled legislature will return to Richmond on April 17 to consider the vetoes and amendments that Youngkin has proposed to a legislature that rejected the $2 billion sports and entertainment district in Alexandria that he had made his top priority. As of Thursday Youngkin had vetoed 87 bills this year and 128 in his term, a modern Virginia record.

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Youngkin’s Deputy Communications Director Macaulay Porter said that Virginia is obligated to fund lab schools according to the budget Youngkin signed in 2022, which is law until the governor signs a new budget.

“While the budget is still working its way through the process for the biennium,” covering July 1, 2024 to June 30, 2026, “the Commonwealth has a statutory requirement and fund to deliver on lab school development,” Porter said in a statement.

“Governor Youngkin and the General Assembly delivered $100 million for the lab school initiative” and the Virginia Board of Education “is following through on that,” Porter said.

“The Governor and the administration remain committed to supporting lab school development and are doubling down on efforts to bring innovation to every corner of the Commonwealth and he’s encouraged by the enthusiasm and collaboration amongst our community colleges, our private and public schools, and public entities to give students an opportunity to build for future success.”

Whether the $10 million for the two new lab schools would come from the current budget or the next budget depends on whether contracts between the higher education institution and the state are signed before June 30, the last day that the current spending plan covers. The process involves lawyers and a review by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

After the board’s Thursday vote, Youngkin touted the establishment of Virginia’s fifth and sixth lab schools.

“These lab schools provide exciting options for children to explore STEM, computer science, and IT skills as they think about their futures,” Youngkin said in a statement. “I’m grateful for the community support for both of these lab schools and appreciate the Board’s continued commitment to keep moving forward with valuable opportunities for Virginia’s students and communities.”

Two new lab schools

The state Board of Education’s Thursday vote approved the establishment of Virginia’s fifth and sixth lab schools, from the University of Virginia and Mountain Gateway Community College. The schools are to create STEM-focused programs for middle school and high school students in their areas.

Virginia Superintendent Lisa Coons recommended the approval and $10 million in start-up funds — $3 million for Mountain Gateway Community College and $7 million for the University of Virginia.

The board of education approved each of the lab schools on a 7-1 vote. Anne Holton, the only holdover board member that Youngkin did not appoint, cast the dissenting votes.

Holton said: “Despite the strengths of the programs, if there’s no money, it can’t go forward, and might even be counterproductive, frankly, to the negotiations if the folks in the General Assembly think” the board of education is disrespecting the budget process, said Holton, a former state secretary of education and Virginia first lady.

Holton encouraged the board to approve the lab schools on a preliminary basis, as is the normal procedure on a first vote. The board ultimately voted to approve the lab schools as a final decision.

Board member Bill Hansen said he “fundamentally disagrees” with Holton’s caution that the vote could compromise budget negotiations.

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“I think it’s incumbent upon us … to proceed with this and I would hope that the quality of this work and the importance of this work would actually, I think, be helpful for the deliberations and the conversations that are going on, to understand the students are going to be benefited by this,” Hansen said at Thursday’s meeting.

The legality of appropriating lab school funding to private institutes of higher learning, or to two-year colleges — like Mountain Gateway Community College — is unclear.

Democratic lawmakers who wrote the part of the law concerning these types of institutions say that Virginia state code prevents the appropriation of state funds to such institutions. The Youngkin administration disagrees.

The Virginia State Auditor, the agency that would make the call on whether lab school money given to two-year colleges was misappropriated, normally only investigates after the fact. So, the auditor would be able to investigate the lab school funds appropriated late last year to Germanna Community College, a two-year college, after this fiscal year ends on June 30.

According to state law, if the Auditor of Public Accounts discovers any illegal expenditure of state funds, she reports the facts to the governor, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and the Comptroller.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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