School budget rise pruned to $417K

Cuts were made and a revised budget developed Tuesday night (Feb. 19) at a Rappahannock County School Board budget work session. After 90 minutes of discussion and several tough decisions, the board trimmed about $200,000 from the working budget proposed last week by interim superintendent Kathleen Grove, leaving the current 2013-14 school budget draft at $12.5 million.

The proposed budget is still $417,251 larger than the school division’s 2012-13 budget.

The school board began by setting an amount that they wished to cut before turning the budget draft over to the board of supervisors next month.

“I’d like to see us cut at least $200,000 from this,” said board chairman John Lesinski, a sentiment echoed by Piedmont district member Aline Johnson and Stonewall-Hawthorne’s Paul Brown.

“There’s got to be a point in time at which we start being realistic about this budget,” Brown said, noting that he thought the current budget was entirely too much.

“We have to have a reading specialist to make sure the kids learn what they need to learn,” said Jackson district representative Amy Hitt, with agreement from Johnson. “We’re still not sure on the final numbers for health insurance . . . I say we leave it at six [$600,000 above last year’s budget].”

The first cut made was the proposed full-time Farm-To-Table teacher ($18,891, including salary and benefits). Grove said she had met with Headwaters director Jane Bowling-Wilson before the board’s meeting and the two agreed that Headwaters would continue its 50-percent funding of that position for this year.

The biggest line-item cut of the night was the proposed three percent across-the-board raise for all Rappahannock County Public School employees. The raise wasn’t eliminated entirely, but it did drop from three percent to two percent – a $60,000 savings.

“The three-percent increase is a bit more generous than surrounding counties,” Lesinski said. “I think that might be a little high.”

The board then spent about 30 minutes discussing the various options for employee healthcare and benefits, and lamented that not all the numbers they were working with were finalized (and some won’t be until after the budget is already due in the supervisors’ hands).

Nevertheless, the board firmly set the KeyCare 500 plan (the 500 refers to the deductible, or the amount a subscriber has to pay before the coverage begins) as the school division’s default plan. Single subscribers will continue to have monthly premiums paid by the school division, while employees with a family plan pay 30 percent of the monthly premium (the school system pays the remaining 70 percent).

There was talk about changing the provider or making another plan the default level in an effort to save some money, but the board agreed that endorsing the KeyCare 500 was the best course for everyone. That decision, which is now based on relatively finalized insurance cost numbers, saved another $50,000.

The board also elected to forego health insurance for school board members, a savings of $47,139. The idea of adopting the same coverage offered by the board of supervisors was proposed (covering a single subscriber, with policy holders paying the difference for any dependents), but each board member decided they didn’t need the coverage and agreed to cut it.

Other cuts included the idea of leasing and eventual purchase of two seven-passenger vans ($7,000) and the prospect of varsity golf ($3,000), though the board did note that if there was sufficient interest in a golf team, they could still find a way to add it.

The adoption of new state reading textbooks ($35,158), tutoring before and after the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests ($6,000) and ongoing improvements to the school (painting and other upkeep, $15,950) all survived the board’s work session.

“The painting is important,” said Hitt. “The kids need to be proud of where they go to school.”

Hiring a full-time athletic trainer is also still on the table, though not without some discussion. Grove said that, according to her research, 72 percent of Virginia high schools have a full-time trainer; Hitt added that 85 percent of the schools in Rappahannock’s new athletic conference have a full-time trainer.

The trainer would cost around $64,531, which includes a $5,000 stipend as compensation for the late nights travel with RCPS sports teams would necessarily include. The ideal situation for a trainer, Hitt said, would be to have them come in around 11, stay until all the sporting events are finished and teach a class on sports medicine or similar topic, thus also expanding the school’s offerings for students interested in a medical career.

“A trainer is important and we need to have one. When kids get hurt here, we’re liable,” Hitt said. She also pointed out that while other schools’ trainers can be consulted at sporting events, they simply don’t know the Rapp athletes well enough, which she said is unfair to students and coaches alike.

Brown was in favor of cutting the trainer, suggesting that it be a part-time position or that the school somehow partner with local fire and rescue companies. “I don’t see the need for a stipend if being a trainer is their job,” he added.

Jeffrey Knight, of the Hampton district, said during the public comment period that he’d like to see a study of what percentage of schools the size of Rappahannock offer athletic trainers. “We are what we are,” Knight said, “and we just can’t have everything the larger counties do.”

Stonewall-Hawthorne’s Joanne Tepper said she liked the idea of adding new programs, but hoped the school would continue to support its existing ones, especially the band. “We have a very talented band,” Tepper said. “They’re a small group of kids, but they’re devoted and they struggle for money . . . Golf is good for the rest of your life, but so is music.”

“I’m encouraged by the insurance talks: it needed to be addressed and it was,” said Ron Makela of Amissville, who also urged the board not to postpone any exterior painting. “If you let it go, it can cost big money to replace . . . it’s unforgiving.”

Both Makela and Knight suggested the board include pie charts in their public handout materials, to more quickly and efficiently break down how much money is being spent in any particular area.

The board’s next budget meeting is a March 5 public hearing. The school board meets at its regular time again March 12, and has a joint budget meeting with the supervisors March 18. The supervisors’ approval of the county’s 2013-14 budget, including the county’s share of the school budget, is due May 6.