Senate to take up bill requiring Virginia schools to spend unused relief funds

Legislation would require school divisions to use unspent funds by July 1

By: - February 13, 2023 12:02 am

A surgical mask hangs inside a school locker during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Getty Images)

Legislation backed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin that would require Virginia school divisions to spend any federal pandemic funds they haven’t yet used or forfeit them is headed to the Senate for consideration.

An October report from the Virginia Department of Education shows Fairfax County Public Schools have the most unspent relief funds, representing more than $170 million. Norfolk schools have the next highest amount at $136 million, followed by Henrico at $116 million, Richmond City at $111 million and Newport News at $93 million. 

How big a percentage of the divisions’ operating budgets those unspent funds represent varies. Fairfax, for example, has a current operating budget of $3.3 billion, while the Norfolk schools budget is $376 million.

The legislation, which passed the House on a 52-48 vote, followed comments by Youngkin this October urging school divisions to spend their remaining funds to address achievement gaps and proficiency declines among Virginia students. 

“Virginia students are in a crisis,” said Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, the patron of the bill. “We have the ability to be able to take steps to undo that damage.” 

In October, a national report showed declines in reading and math proficiency between 2019 and 2022 for Virginia’s fourth, eighth and 12th grade students, as well as continuous drops in fourth graders’ proficiency since 2017. Virginia also saw declines in proficiency scores on state standardized tests. 

Under House Bill 2269, school divisions would be required to spend their remaining funds by July 1 or forfeit them later this summer. Divisions with funds exceeding 20% of their total award would be required to return them by July 15 to the Virginia Department of Education, which would then redistribute them to other school divisions to assist with learning loss efforts.

But opponents say the legislation interferes in decisions made by school divisions and may conflict with federal guidance on relief spending. 

“School divisions have laid out plans for these monies and to change that all of a sudden we don’t feel is appropriate,” said Tom Smith, legislative liaison for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.

Stacy Haney, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, said the legislation conflicts with guidance from the federal government.

“This bill is contrary to federal guidance regarding pandemic relief funds distributed to [local educational agencies],” a fiscal impact statement for the bill from the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget reads. “It is also unclear whether formula funds returned by [local educational agencies] to the state can be used by the state.”

Eileen Cox, chief communications officer with Henrico County Public Schools, said the school division supported the previously established timelines and uses for the relief funds. Under the school division’s plan for the funds, Henrico anticipates spending millions to continue remediation for learning loss during its Summer Academy by September 2024. 

Virginia awarded millions in federal funds to school divisions received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

Schools have used these funds to support safe operations and address the pandemic’s impacts with tools such as tutoring, after-school programs and counseling services.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.