For five consecutive years, during which the county property tax rate actually declined, local funding for schools has remained unchanged at $8.5 million. That honeymoon, however, might be over.
In a presentation to the Rappahannock County School Board at its monthly meeting Tuesday (Feb. 14), superintendent Aldridge Boone signaled, in detail, his intention to propose a 2012-2013 school budget that could require an estimated 5- to 7-percent increase in the local property tax rate.
That rate went down to 58 cents two years ago following a three-year spell at 60 cents per $100 of assessed value. (For perspective: A property worth $400,000 is now taxed at $2,320 a year; if that rate went up 3 cents to 61 cents, a roughly 5 percent increase, that property’s annual tax would rise $120 to $2,440.)
“This might be the worst year of all budget years I’ve been involved in,” Boone said, citing changes in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education priorities as well as fiscal policies his predecessors began that “are now coming due.” “But I ask you,” Boone added, “to keep in mind that what we are talking about here is the quality of education that we give the kids in this community, day in and day out.
“I can’t speak for the board of supervisors and the community at large,” Boone said, “but I can’t see how we can get through this year without a tax increase.”
Boone’s presentation included “possible” increases powered largely by staff and rising benefits costs, including a 3 percent staff salary increase he said would be necessary to keep the county’s school division competitive in the region, and the continued funding of Virginia Retirement Service, health and life insurance benefits.
He prefaced the talk with a caution that “this is not a formal budget proposal.”
That will come after the school board’s “work session,” a public meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. next Tuesday night (Feb. 21) in the high school library. Public hearings will follow.
The bottom line, if all the “possibles” make it into a proposed budget, is a potential increase of $500,000 to $780,000 in the funded share of the school budget – a figure the county supervisors must finalize by May.
Noting that it’s too early to make any conclusions, school board chairman John Lesinski said after the meeting: “I support the effort to make ‘the ask’ [referring to the process of the school division requesting approval of a budget from the county government]. I think it’s a strong case.”
Rappahannock County, as Boone noted in his remarks, is one of just 10 of Virginia’s 134 jurisdictions required to make the maximum local contribution to local school costs – an 80 percent share (with the state funding at 20 percent), based on its “composite index” of .80, the state’s complex calculation of a jurisdiction’s “ability to pay.”
The index is based on several factors, including the degree of agricultural land-use tax breaks, but is primarily driven by median household income and fair-market land values – two statistics that, in Rappahannock County, have skyrocketed in the past two decades while other sources of tax income, such as business- and industry-driven receipts, have not (unlike in Fairfax County, for example, another nearby jurisdiction with a .80 composite index).
The school system, which operates in a county of 7,000 people that is also home to four private schools and is surrounded by school divisions many times its size, has also suffered in recent years from a slowly declining school population – and small-turnout sports teams asked to compete in a district filled with large and storied competitors.
Among the possible additions to the budget for 2012-2013 Boone listed in his presentation slide were: A VRS-driven increase in pension-fund contributions of $392,939 (the largest single item among all the presentation’s possibilities); health and life insurance increases totalling $175,000; a 3-percent across the board staff raise that would cost about $187,000; personnel additions and upgrades totalling about $149,800; a bus lease-purchase program Boone said would allow the school system to augment its aging fleet with five new buses for $88,000, roughly the purchase price of one bus); various program additions (continuing the high school’s internship program and Wilson Reading initiative among them) totalling about $51,000.