School budget rise lessened — a bit

The Rappahannock County School Board and the few members of the public in attendance at its first budget “work session” Tuesday night spent more than two and a half hours clarifying – and, in a couple of cases, canceling – some of the possible additions to superintendent Aldridge Boone’s proposed 2012-2013 budget, which started out the evening (and the two-month long budget process) at an estimated $12.63 million.

The current year’s school budget is $11.69 million.

The total 2012-2013 budget – and its state revenue component, in particular – will remain “estimated” for another two weeks or so, Boone said, while the state works out its own budget process in Richmond. But it still appeared by the end of the work session, and likely at next month’s public hearings and formal adoption by the school board and then the county supervisors May 7, that next year’s school budget could necessitate an increase in local funding.

As of Tuesday night’s exercise, that increase appeared to be about an eight-percent rise over the $8.5 million in county funding provided for schools last year (and in each of the previous four years).

The county’s public funds are derived almost exclusively through real estate property taxes; the current rate is 58 cents per $100 in assessed value.

“Even in a very good economy,” said James Gannon, one of a handful of audience members who spoke after the board analyzed Boone’s recommendations for two hours, “this would be an ambitious budget. It seems to me this is more than ambitious – it’s somewhat unrealistic.

Questioned for the previous two hours by board members, Boone outlined increased expenses that were, in his view, not arriving with a lot of choice, including the largest single line-item increase –  $392,939 for the school division’s contribution to teachers’ and staff’s Virginia Retirement System pensions. That increase, necessitated by fiscal policies shaped in Richmond, is dogging school divisions around the state this spring.

In response to a question from Jeffrey Knight of Washington of why the school division didn’t require employees to make their own partial contributions to their retirement fund, Boone said state law prohibits the school system from changing its level of contributions to teachers’ pensions for any staff member employed before July of 2010.

Increases over last year’s school system expenditures for health and life insurance – $102,455 and $57,427, respectively, according to current estimates – are also not negotiable, Boone said. Rappahannock’s school system pays 100 percent of health insurance costs for teachers who are single; those who want family coverage have to pay for it.

Stonewall-Hawthorne district school board member Paul Brown suggested the division remove a $76,500 line item, the increase in the cost of family coverage for School Board health insurance. Though no formal vote was required, since the board is still working directly with Boone to hone the budget before it’s submitted to the county supervisors March 30, all at the table agreed. Likewise for a proposed addition of an athletic trainer ($65,510), after board member Amy Hitt said she had proposed the idea but meant it as a part-time position, and Boone added that he’s investigating the possibility of a group of community volunteers.

Boone’s budget also includes an addition to annual transportation costs of $88,986 for five new full-sized school buses; after five years of such payments under the terms of a lease-purchase plan, the school division would own the buses for an extra $1.

Finally, Boone re-made the case he first outlined in a preliminary budget presentation Feb. 14 – that the school division’s teachers and staff need to be given a 3-percent across-the-board salary increase, to keep the system from losing good teachers to surrounding jurisdictions who haven’t – as has Rappahannock – kept teachers’ salaries level for the last five years. (That line-item increase: $187,476.)

“You can’t ask the schoolteachers to take on the entire burden of the taxpayers,” said Henry Gorfein of Washington. “You will no longer attract good teachers.”

“I’ve been teaching here for 28 years,” said teacher Patti Waddell, after Knight and Gannon had urged the board to consider paying a smaller percentage of teachers’ benefits and pension costs and again postponing any pay raise. “And I’m also a taxpayer here. And I’ve seen a lot of excellent teachers leave and go to other school divisions, especially close-by school divisions.

“It’s a sad thing. It’s almost like we’re . . . a training ground,” she added, echoing comments made in recent months by Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie Smith, speaking of the difficulties she’s had in keeping deputies she’s trained for a few years from then leaving for jobs in nearby, better-paying departments.

“Oh yeah,” Waddell said, “we pay them less – but how much does it cost us in the long run for having our kids taught by teachers who have been around for only a few years?”

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 535 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.