Teachers feel taxed by budget

More than 10 unhappy public school teachers, and Jackson district school board member Amy Hitt,  squeezed into a single pew in the back row of the Rappahannock County courthouse at Tuesday night’s (May 29) final board of supervisors budget work session.

Along with a few school employees who stood at the top of the stairwell and against the back wall, most were waiting to express disappointment in the significantly reduced school budget approved by the supervisors May 7.

The $22.1 million fiscal-year 2013 county budget is scheduled for approval at the supervisors’ monthly meeting Monday (June 4) at 2 p.m.

“No one saw this coming,” eighth-grade teacher Karen Sanborn said to the supervisors, addressing the health insurance cuts outlined by superintendent Aldridge Boone in a school employee meeting last Wednesday (May 23). “That’s why we didn’t come out in droves before.”

So this time, disgruntled teachers made their presence, and opinions, known.

In previous public hearings and work sessions on the 2012-2013 school and county budgets, there was much debate among county residents, parents and employees over Boone’s proposed 3-percent across-the-board salary increase to school employees, a benefit they haven’t seen in four years, and the real estate tax increase that would come with it. There wasn’t much talk about health benefit reductions.

But when the supervisors voted to cut Boone’s proposed schools budget increase in half (to $280,000, allowing a total of $12.096 million for expenses), the superintendent said he was forced to go back to the drawing board. There was one increase he could not get around, and that was the state-mandated $342,000 increase in Virginia Retirement System (VRS) obligations.

So in an 8 a.m. May 25 school board budget work session, Boone began by eliminating the proposed lease/purchase of four new buses and two new vehicles, cutting about $86,000. Then several proposed expenses involving faculty training, field trips and what he referred to as the “infamous roller blades” were eliminated, knocking off another $80,000. That left the school $174,000 over the mark set by the supervisors.

Since Boone was adamant about giving the school employees their long-awaited 3-percent salary raise, he said that only left health insurance to be adjusted, so he limited full coverage to single subscribers and split the difference by only covering half of the remaining health insurance packages for employees’ spouses and dependents.

And in accordance with the increased VRS obligations, although the school employees are technically getting an 8-percent salary increase, 5 percent of that goes straight to VRS. So with decreased health insurance proposed by Boone, many teachers are actually taking home less money at the end of each month.

High school teacher Patti Waddell said that next year will be the first in 28 years that she will be taking home less pay. She noted that she hasn’t gotten an increase in the last four years, and has been offered jobs in Culpeper and Fauquier counties, but has stayed here because she loves the area and loves the school. “But love doesn’t pay my bills,” Waddell said. “And if it comes out in the newspaper that I got an 8-percent raise, it’s a lie, an absolute lie.”

Elementary school teacher Layne Vickers has been a county employee for 26 years.

“I’m getting a 3 percent raise and will take a pay cut of at least $150 a month,” she said.

School nurse Linda Torrance, whose five now-adult sons and daughter went through Rappahannock’s public school system, said she was disappointed to hear that Boone’s proposed budget was cut in half by the supervisors. She said that $560,000 proposed school budget increase wasn’t a Christmas list or a birthday list, it was a budget of need. Torrance asked the supervisors to reconsider, because the only place that Boone could possibly cut is the insurance. “As a taxpayer and a citizen of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district, my supervisor Chris Parrish stood in my yard and told me he was a supporter of the schools,” Torrance said, “and I hope he can live up to that.”

Parrish said he’d lost some sleep over the school budget, but that he has faith in the superintendent’s problem-solving abilities.

“The school budget’s already been approved,” Parrish said. “We don’t have any choice on how the school budget is handled. And the big problem is that the state of Virginia now requires a 5-percent retirement increase. As for the health insurance cuts, this is a surprise to me. I haven’t seen what the school budget specifics are, and I’m not sure if that’s set in stone . . . I empathize with what’s happened, but this insurance thing is hitting the whole country.”

Boone then stood before the board and said that last Wednesday he had a meeting with the schools’ staff.

“I felt I owed it to my staff to stand in front of them and tell them what I had to do, and why I had to do it,” Boone said.“It comes down to how much money you have, and $12.096 million was what you all approved.

“It was always our goal to maintain that 3-percent salary increase, and our other goal was to not have to ask anyone to leave,” Boone continued, noting that one veteran elementary school teacher is retiring this year and her position will not be filled. He noted that 5 percent of that 8-percent increase goes back to the VRS, which was a $342,000 obligation.

Hampton district supervisor Bryant Lee said that the supervisors could do a line-item veto like the big divisions do, but in recent years the supervisors have decided repeatedly not to do so.

“And you have to remember, we didn’t cut the budget, the state did,” Lee said, adding that the school budget went up $187,000 through the 3-percent salary increase. “There was no intention on the board of supervisors’ part for the teachers to get a pay cut.”