School board OKs $12.6 million budget

At its public work session Tuesday night (March 19), the Rappahannock County School Board voted to adopt a formal budget proposal totalling $12,618,208 – a $445,932 increase over the 2012-13 budget.

Budget datebook

April 1: School board presents budget at supervisors’ regular monthly meeting

April 3: Joint school board/supervisors hearing, 7 p.m. at high school auditorium

April 29: Public hearing on the overall county budget, 7 p.m. at high school auditorium

May 6: Supervisors approve school budget by this date, most likely at 2 p.m. meeting

Earlier in the two-hour session, the board had actually pruned the 2013-2014 budget increase to $291,068 above last year’s $12.09 million figure. But then it elected to allocate an additional $155,022 to replace two of the school’s aging buses, bringing the adopted budget to within about $100,000 of the $12.7 million budget originally proposed by interim superintendent Kathleen Grove.

Rappahannock’s bus fleet is, as the school system’s administration director Robert Stump said, “one of the oldest in the Commonwealth,” with 10 buses more than 15 years old, and 11 of the school’s 27 between 14 and 20 years old.

Stump also said that because of the high percentage of old buses in the fleet, Rappahannock is likely to qualify for a federal grant that would provide a $25,000-per-bus discount to the school, driving the cost down from $77,511 per bus to a more manageable $52,511.

“We will get some help,” Stump assured the board members.

To be eligible for the grant, however, the school division has to show it can cover the full cost of the buses, necessitating both an increase and a line item in the school’s budget. Rather than apply for five new buses (which would cost $262,555), the board voted to apply for two buses and begin the process of gradually replacing 10 over the next five years, both minimizing the impact on the budget in future years and ensuring the school doesn’t wind up needing to replace every bus at once years later.

“We need to eliminate the issue of a fleet that’s dying,” said Jackson district board member Amy Hitt, who said she was concerned for the children’s safety on some of the older busses.

The buses represented the single biggest line item of the night, but other areas that survived the cuts included a reading specialist ($61,087), a mandatory state reading text adoption ($35,158) and athletic trainer services ($16,148).

Grove’s initial draft budget had included hiring a full-time athletic trainer, but, after consulting with athletic director Jimmy Swindler, she decided on a stipend for local emergency medical technicians (EMT) to provide assistance at all 140 Panther games next season.

The new budget also reflected a $25,000 health insurance savings after the board voted to switch health-care providers at its March 12 meeting.

The school board had originally budgeted for three levels of coverage – KeyCare 500 (the default), 200 and a point-of-service plan; the numbers refer to the plan’s deductible (or the amount a subscriber has to pay before the insurance coverage begins).

While those numbers remain the same, the board looked into other area providers and elected to defer coverage to Local Choice, instead of KeyCare. Both providers offer similar coverage (and plan levels), but Local Choice provides better dental coverage, including covering orthodontist costs.

Local Choice will also result in “increased deductibles for all employees and higher premiums for some employees,” Grove said Tuesday night.

Several board members also pointed out that the Local Choice offerings still surpass the health-care benefits offered by surrounding counties. Piedmont district board member Aline Johnson remarked that the superintendent’s proposed 3-percent salary increase for school employees (a $190,608 increase which also survived the budget cuts) would offset the health-care benefit costs.

“We need new buses,” Johnson said, “but we also need teachers to teach the kids. Nobody works harder than our staff.”

“We need this 3-percent increase to balance out the health-care reform,” said Hitt. “One hand washes the other . . . There are other places in this county where things can be cut. Why is it always up to the school board?”

School board chairman John Lesinski echoed Hitt’s statement, pointing out that no other budgetary process is subjected to as much close scrutiny as the school board’s. “People who question the school board need to also look at the county as a whole . . . the county should go through the same process in looking closely at its expenditures.”

The board’s work was praised by several audience members during the public comment period, including planning commission member Gary Light, who said he appreciated the board’s hard work and “the rebalancing. I’m also encouraged because I think the reading specialist is the number one priority.”

“It’s not your fault about the busses – that’s the result of failures some years ago,” said Amissville’s Ron Makela, eliciting several grateful looks from the board. “But I don’t want to see us end up in the same position [of needing to replace another 10 busses] 12 years down the road – that’s poor planning . . . It’s not fair to you, but it’s not fair to us [the taxpayers] to have to pick up the slack.”

“I think we could use $1 million more and make good use of it,” said Janet Davis, of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district. “But this bus grant may be pie in the sky. I’d like to know what of this budget is the first to go in the worst-case scenario . . . We need to plan for that, no matter how justified we may be.”

“I recognize that the board has faced very serious and difficult disadvantages,” said Flint Hill resident Bill Dietel, speaking (and drawing applause) for the second time Tuesday night. “Take courage . . . do not listen to those who say ‘You can’t get that money from the supervisors.’ There’s a price to be paid for that [attitude] in the education of our children.

“People who complain about the increases will be with us till the end of time, but so will those who think you have a great case to make . . . only a fool thinks we can [improve] without qualified people – and that costs money. This school system is undermanned, not overmanned,” Dietel continued.

“Take courage, and good luck.”