Budget bullet dodged

Historically, Rappahannock County has gotten a smaller cut of state school funding than all but a half-dozen other counties in the commonwealth. For precisely that reason, however, the county is apparently better off in this historically tight state budget cycle than almost every neighboring jurisdiction.

“The good news is, our $250,000 seems to have survived,” said County Administrator John W. McCarthy this week, after the General Assembly passed a $70 billion Virginia budget known largely for its unprecedented program and personnel cuts statewide.

While neighboring jurisdictions, particularly the more populous, have to compensate for losses of hundreds of thousands to millions, McCarthy said the fiscal year 2011 budget — to be adopted in May — should mean no positions, from the Sheriff’s Office to the schools, need be eliminated this year.

The $250,000 McCarthy cited is the school supplement that county officials, including School Board and Board of Supervisors members, fought for two years ago in Richmond. This was the first year the county was to see the benefit.

“At this point, it’s very unlikely it will go away, and that’s good news,” McCarthy said. Without it, both McCarthy and Schools Superintendent Bob Chappell have said, the school district would’ve had to make up a $320,000 shortfall, instead a more manageable $75,000.

The amendment to the state laws that determine a county’s level of funding based on its Composite Index allowed Rappahannock to share a neighboring county’s better deal by sharing services with it — in this case Madison County. Madison’s Composite Index is significantly lower than the index in Rappahannock, which means it receives a higher level of state school funding.

Such agricultural districts as Rappahannock, which rely heavily on property taxes but allow significant usage of the land-use discounts, wind up with high Composite Indexes — meaning less state funding.

In contrast to other years, the school board’s budget public hearing Tuesday at the high school was distinguished by comments from parents and community members who encouraged the board to “keep standards high.”

“I urge the board to adopt a budget that will fully fund our educational needs,” said Steve Carroll.

“Contrary to what others have been saying over the last several years, my observation is that this school board has not wasted any funds at all, and the proof of that is the Efficiency Review [conducted two years ago], which found that to be run any more efficiently than it was, the school system would have to spend several hundred thousand dollars more a year. My conclusion is that the study proves this school district is run efficiently and economically.”

Chappell said the budget eventually passed by the General Assembly also reinstated the $102,000 in school technology funding that outgoing governor Tim Kaine had cut.

Other data presented by Chappell at the hearing said that the school system had dropped from 179.5 employee positions to 170.5 from 2003, his first year as superintendent, until this year — his last, as he retires in June.

He also said that tracking showed that, contrary to what some have said, there are more students transferring into the system from private or home schooling — 84, since 2007 — than there are transferring out — 50 during the same period, for a net gain of 34 students.

“And this does not count the seven students whose parents are paying almost $7,000 in non-resident tuition to attend Rappahannock County schools,” Chappell said.

Several at the school budget hearing appealed to the board to retain a planned increase in its stake in the Farm-to-Table program, funded for the most part the last two years by the private Headwaters Foundation . The school district had contributed $2,000 to the program’s annual cost (which is more than $40,000); this year Chappell had proposed to increase the school system’s share to $5,000.

The school system’s largest challenge, however, remains what to do about failing energy and lighting systems at both the elementary school and high school.

When the board attempted to enter a state-licensed performance contract for $1.5 to $2 million in repairs with Amersco last year, public outcry over the impending debt forced the Board of Supervisors to cancel those plans.

The supervisors appointed a joint committee to study what needed to be done to upgrade or repair the systems to make them more efficient, and the engineering firm hired by that committee turned in its report last week.

The report from Simmons, Rockecharlie & Prince of Richmond recommended $624,250 be spent to repair dysfunctional or older and severely inefficient heating, cooling, lighting and control systems — at the high school, elementary school, school administration building, the county jail, clerk’s office and courthouse.

“It’s not directly comparable to the $1.5 to $2 million the school board wanted to spend,” McCarthy said. “It does not include any window replacements, and it does include work and locations that the school’s proposal did not.”

For upgrades to systems at the county and school plants, McCarthy said, the county will likely have to consider some kind of performance contract – wherein loan payments are made from predicted energy savings — and any shortfall is guaranteed, or made up, by the contractor.

“It just has so much statutory weight behind it now, in Virginia, as a means to finance this kind of energy-saving construction,” he said.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 534 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.