CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WRIC) — Chesterfield Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty gave a warning to county leaders Tuesday: if the budget doesn’t shape up, Chesterfield schools will see real cuts in the classroom.

The forecast came as Dr. Daugherty introduced his proposal for the school division’s budget, the first step in a process that will likely stretch until at least April as the county and state balance their commitments to education.

For now, Dr. Daugherty and school leaders have been making their projections based on a preliminary planning estimate from the county and a state budget proposed by Governor Glenn Youngkin and embraced by Republicans in the House. That state budget is likely to change as Republicans are forced to compromise with Democrats in the Senate.

From FY22 to FY23, although the total amount the county gave to the school division increased by about $100 million, the school division’s share of the overall budget dropped from 44% to 41%.

“The big question is, why did we go down in that budget there?” Daugherty said.

Now, Daugherty says that if nothing changes on the state or local level, the school division will face a $17 million shortfall in FY24.

Budget slide showing where funding for the school division is expected to come from under current proposals. (Courtesy of Chesterfield County Public Schools)

Daugherty emphasized that the numbers in his presentation aren’t a wish list or aspirational funding requests — it represents the budget necessary to keep the lights on for the county’s more than 60,000 students.

“For a school division of this size, $900 million is a pretty small budget,” he said. “We’re past the stage where we can make do with less.”

Part of the budgetary pressure comes from the county’s rapid growth. The county has ballooned by 43% since 2000, and it’s the 5th-largest school division in the state.

Chesterfield is one of the largest and fastest-growing school divisions in the commonwealth. (Courtesy of Chesterfield County Public Schools)

“We’re one of the few counties in the commonwealth or the nation expecting this much growth,” Daugherty said.

Included in the budget are things like new ESL teachers (the population of English learners has doubled over the past decade) and a 6.5% pay increase for teachers, which Daugherty said was key to ensuring the county could recruit enough teachers to fill classrooms.

That pay increase includes a 5% increase mandated by the state, but only half of that amount is paid for by the state, with the county required to make up the remainder. That and other so-called “unfunded mandates” are a source of frustration for the county, which must pay for requirements the state sets aside no funding for.

Daugherty also warned that if the $17 million isn’t found, they’ll be forced to make difficult decisions.

“It’ll affect the classroom environment, it’ll affect the overall school division,” he said. “Programs will be cut. We have to have a balanced budget, I’m not allowed to run in the red.”

Chesterfield already has some of the lowest per-pupil education spendings in Virginia, spending around $3,000 less per student than the state average.

Chesterfield has one of the lowest per-pupil spending rates in the Commonwealth. (Courtesy of Chesterfield County Public Schools)

The Superintendent’s request for additional funding drew vocal support from at least four members of the school board on Tuesday evening: Dot Heffron, Debbie Bailey, Ann Coker and Kathryn Haines.

“If anybody out there is watching this, remember, this is an election year, so vote,” said Bailey. “If you want your dollars to be reflected in education, this is an election year — hold the people that are going to be voting on this budget accountable.”

While the school board can craft its budget in line with Daugherty’s request, it will ultimately be up to the board of supervisors to decide how much local funding goes to the school division, after they have a chance to weigh the state budget that will be passed later this Spring.

Still, Bailey said in no uncertain terms, “We need the budget Dr. Daugherty has asked for, every penny.”