Volunteers at the our back2school 2022 event in Henry County get ready. Courtesy of The Community Fellowship.
This photo, taken last summer, is from a Back2School supply event. Photo courtesy of Michael Harrison, The Community Fellowship.

Candy Castelluccio has been taking advantage of Virginia’s popular sales tax holiday to save money on school supplies since she started teaching preschool at River Lawn Elementary School in Pulaski County more than 16 years ago. 

Candy Castelluccio. Courtesy photo.
Candy Castelluccio. Courtesy photo.

Every year, Castelluccio spends up to $600 of her own income on Play-Doh, sidewalk chalk, crayons and water bottles for students that don’t have any. “In some years it’s more than in others, but we don’t want the children to go without,” she told Cardinal News in a phone interview Thursday. 

But starting this fall semester, Castelluccio, her colleagues and thousands of Virginia families on the lower income spectrum can no longer count on the three-day sales tax holiday — usually starting on the first Friday in August of every year — that they’ve come to depend on since 2006, when the General Assembly passed a landmark law waiving Virginia’s 5.3% sales tax and any local taxes on back-to-school supplies, clothes and shoes. 

Because no effort to extend or renew the law was made during the 2023 legislative session, the Virginia Department of Taxation announced in June that it was about to expire by July 1.

The original legislation, which was sponsored by Del. Harry Parrish, R-Manassas, and then merged with an identical measure by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County, exempted certain back-to-school supplies under $20 and clothes and shoes under $100 from the state’s sales tax and any local taxes. 

The sales tax-free weekend was expanded in 2015 to allow savings on emergency preparedness items, such as portable generators ($1,000 or less per item), gas-powered chainsaws ($350 or less) and chainsaw accessories (up to $60 per item) and select EnergyStar and WaterSense appliances for up to $2,500 per item.

Keith Perrigan, Washington County superintendent.

With the tax relief law gone, Keith Perrigan, the superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, said that some families in Southwest Virginia will be able to take advantage of the sales tax holiday in neighboring Tennessee. “Unfortunately that will not be the case for all families, and I am sure they will be disappointed to lose that benefit,” he said. 

The impact, Perrigan added, will also be felt by area businesses because they will lose revenue to businesses across the state line. “We plan to communicate this to our families to ensure they are planning appropriately.”  

And James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, called the legislature’s failure to extend the sales tax holiday a “disservice to our hard-working and underpaid teachers, whose classrooms are already underfunded.” 

That underfunding, Fedderman said in an email, forces many educators to purchase materials for their students out of their own pockets, which is something no other profession must do. “Having a sales tax holiday each year helped make that chore a little easier, at least.”

In theory, lawmakers could still take action and submit an amendment to the state’s biennial budget for the sales tax holiday to return. But budget negotiations in the divided legislature fell apart in June after a monthslong impasse, forcing the state to operate on its two-year budget past June 30 without new amendments. 

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said in an email that the governor put forth a balanced budget proposal that utilized an additional $3.6 billion surplus to invest in education, law enforcement, behavioral health, and provide Virginians with needed tax relief. 

“Yet, the Senate Democrats have stalled the budget process for political gain at the expense of Virginians and have left critical items such as the sales tax holiday in the balance. Given that, the governor is considering next steps,” Porter said. 

But Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a phone interview that the lapse of legislative action “probably was just an oversight” by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. 

“I certainly didn’t pay attention and didn’t do it, and I don’t think any of us recognized it wasn’t done, and after that it was too late. It was a mistake on the legislature’s behalf, and I’m just being honest,” Austin said.

The sales tax holiday was an important tool that many Virginians have used, looked forward to and planned around, Austin added. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t do it because we have all been caught up in other things. When we learned that it was gone, we regretted it, but it wasn’t done with any intent. I think that certainly we’ll bring it back.”

A renewal or extension of the sales tax holiday would have to go through the House Finance Committee, which has been “really laser-focused on widespread tax relief,” said Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, who is a member of the panel. 

“The sales tax holiday, while it was certainly nice, wasn’t quite as beneficial, and many of those types of programs do have expiration or sunset dates,” McNamara said in a phone interview. “I guess we’re shooting for home runs, and missed a couple of the singles.”

If Youngkin decided to call lawmakers back to Richmond for a special session to work on budget amendments, the sales taxes holiday would likely come up, McNamara said, adding that he’d be inclined to support an extension. “I’d have to sit and really look at it. I just want to make sure that it would really make a difference for a lot of our families and Virginians.”

Without the provision’s renewal, more families in financial distress would have to rely on charitable organizations like Back2School, a program launched by the Community Fellowship in Collinsville in 2006 that has been handing out school supplies to students across Southwest Virginia. 

“It’s a surprise that the tax relief is going but it’s no surprise that the need remains,” said Pastor Michael Harrison, the ministry’s founder. “This will definitely hurt, and it will also drive people to look for places like ours and other organizations to get school supplies.”

This photo, taken last summer, is from a Back2School supply event. Photo courtesy of Michael Harrison.

Back2School’s goal is to help 3,000 students with an average of $70 in school supplies, including backpacks and even haircuts at some locations this year, Harrison said. “We have all kinds of issues going on around our communities and we have people in need, whether in poverty or middle class, and any breaks that are given are very helpful.”

And Castelluccio, the preschool teacher from Pulaski, said that she has noticed an uptick of parents and educators creating wishlists on Amazon and seeking help with their school supplies through donations from strangers. 

“Some personal friends of mine are upset because people have been planning to get back-to-school clothes and shoes, and they feel like they are having to stretch that budget even further through inflation,” she said.

With the new school year inching closer, Castelluccio is urging lawmakers to return to Richmond to extend the sales tax holiday “hopefully even sooner than later,” because school starts back up “for a lot of us in Southwest Virginia” before Labor Day. 

“They should make sure that they always keep their eyes on education, because the children are and always will be the greatest resource the state has,” Castelluccio said. 

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.