No one left happy from Monday afternoon’s monthly Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors meeting – as several of its members had predicted – after the supervisors approved what the county would spend on schools for 2012-2013.
Since the state mandated this year that local jurisdictions would help shore up the underfunded Virginia Retirement System for state employees (at an increased local cost of nearly $400,000 annually), it was a scene repeated in courthouses and county offices around the commonwealth over the last two months.
About an hour of talk Monday revealed sentiments, among the board members and the 20 citizens who showed up for the meeting, to be split roughly down the middle – both strongly for and strongly against approval of a school budget requiring a nearly $560,000 increase in local funding over last year.
After a motion by Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier to cut $320,000 failed for lack of a second, the board voted on Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish’s suggested compromise, to split the proposed increase down the middle, making a unanimous decision to limit the increase to $280,000.
“We’ll have to go back and make the expense side match the revenue side again,” said school superintendent Aldridge Boone immediately after the vote. He had been huddled with school division finance officer Bonnie Hahn over budget sheets and a legal pad as the supervisors calculated how much to cut from the school budget (which now stands at $12.09 million, a roughly $400,000 increase over last year’s $11.69, and which had included allowances for a 3-percent across-the-board school division staff increase – and an additional $392,000 in state-mandated contributions to VRS).
“Something has to be cut,” Boone said, “whether it’s programs or people, I don’t know at this point.”
“The state pretty much mandated this tax increase, and didn’t leave a lot of room to play,” said chairman Roger Welch of Wakefield district, before voting. “As for approving this budget by category [a suggestion made Monday by taxpayer advocate Tom Junk of Sperryville, and by others during this spring’s contentious budget season], we tried that years ago; it did not work – at all.”
Property taxes, which would’ve risen by roughly 5 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to County Administrator John McCarthy, would instead rise by about 3 cents to 61 cents per $100 – though that number won’t be finalized until the county approves its roughly $22 million overall budget sometime next month.
At the school board’s regular monthly meeting the following evening (Tuesday, May 8), noticeably frustrated members compared schedules to find time for a work session to address the reduced budget. Waiting any later than May 31 to submit a re-balanced budget would put the school division in a bind, Boone told the school board.
Boone and the board settled on a final work session day May 25, starting at 8 a.m. in the school board office. Boone said he’ll run a scenario past them with the budget that does not include the proposed new school bus leases (something at least three supervisors seemed to support removing from this year’s budget). “We don’t have any safety issues with the buses,” Boone told the school board.
Early indications are that the 3-percent school employees’ raise could survive the cuts.
“I’m just trying to wrap my head around the fact that we asked for a $560,000 increase, and they only gave us 280,000,” said Jackson district school board member Amy Hitt, her head in her hands, shaking her head from side to side.
During the public comment period at Monday’s supervisors session, Junk suggested the school system – with a slowly declining enrollment – has “too many teachers,” especially at the high school level.
“Over the next few years, with the [costs of the regional] jail coming in, the only way you’re going to get back in line is you have to do something about having too many teachers,” Junk said.
Parrish later defended the school, saying “whether you have 15 or 20 kids in a class, you still have to have a teacher. Whether there are 15 or 30 kids on a bus, you still have to pay a driver and burn the same amount of fuel to get there.
“Unlike private schools,” Parrish said, “our school division has to deal with kids who are not college-bound, and kids with special needs. Those kids, and costs, have to be factored in – and our schools have done a great job in those areas, with the cooking program, with the farm-to-table program.
“I have to say, I’m really proud of this school system,” said Parrish, who also said there was a “strong sentiment” among his constituents and those he’d talked to in recent months, that the school staff should get a raise, something they haven’t received in the last four years of level-funded budget cycles.
“But a 5-cent increase, that’s untenable,” he said. “It’s too much.”
The after-vote school budget funding share will translate to 1.5 cents of a 3-cent increase in taxes; McCarthy has said about one cent is demanded by a sharp increase in social services costs, and the other half a cent by state-mandated salary increases for many of the county’s non-school employees.
“The school board has listened with much interest to the comments of citizens,” said school board chair John Lesinski after the supervisors’ vote. “So there’s nothing that’s off the table. We have spent a lot of time looking hard at this year’s budget, and we’ll just have to go back and sharpen our pencils and do it some more.”