School budget approved, minus $145K

To the apparent dissatisfaction of many in the crowd, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors voted Monday afternoon (May 6) to take the school board’s proposed budget increase down a notch – or a cent.

Translated to the property tax rate per $100 of assessed value, the supervisors’ decision to cut what had been a $445,932 increase over last year’s school budget down to $300,000 also reduced what had been a pending 3-cent, school-driven increase to 2 cents. The school budget now stands at $12.47 million; the school board will adopt it either at its public work session at 5:30 p.m. today (Thursday, May 9) at the school board offices, or at its regular monthly meeting Monday (May 13).

Interim superintendent Kathleen Grove – who will welcome her permanent replacement Donna Matthews, hired just last week, sometime over the next two months – said Tuesday that the school board could finalize and adopt a budget at its Thursday work session. “Nothing is clear,” she added, including what may or may not survive the cuts the board is now forced to make.

“What we have done is list all the proposed new expenditures for the board to review. I likened it to one of the games on ‘The Price Is Right,’ where you had to get as close to the number without going over,” Grove said. “Also, to make the budget work, the [cuts] don’t have to come from a new resource [a proposed new expense in the 2014 budget]. The board could decide to go into this year’s budget items to find the $140,000 as well.”

The two major additions to this year’s budget were a 3-percent across-the-board increase to employees’ salaries and $155,000 to buy two replacement buses and begin the process of replacing Rappahannock’s fleet, one of the oldest in the Commonwealth.

Piedmont district supervisor Mike Biniek was the first supervisor to act, making a motion that the board accept the school budget as proposed. “I’m impressed with the quality of education we can offer, and I’d like to see it continue as a strong school system,” Biniek said. “When the bus people say they need a new bus, I believe them.”

Biniek’s motion failed to find a second.

Hampton supervisor S. Bryant Lee spoke next, suggesting the supervisors strike a compromise and allocate $300,000 to the school budget. Lee said he was impressed with the work the schools had done and that they were doing a good job of preparing the children to someday run the county.

“I look through the budget and there’s nothing here that’s not needed,” said Lee. “But this is a tough year,” he added – referring to proposed county budget increases, most for social services program funding, that account for another possible 3 cents added to the property tax rate (now at 57 cents per $100).

“We need something good to haul the children in,” Lee said, noting that if the schools continued doing their jobs, the children were less likely “to wind up next door.” He pointed toward the county jail.

Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish seconded Lee’s motion, adding that, although he had fielded several calls from constituents who didn’t want a budget increase at all, the general sentiment was that the county’s teachers (and, by extension, the rest of the staff) deserved a raise.

Parrish said he too believed the teachers deserved a raise, but that the financial situation was tight in Rappahannock County, which he said receives the smallest amount of school-related federal funding of any county in Virginia.

“It’s obvious at some point we’re going to have to buy new buses,” Parrish said, who added that he thought one replacement bus per year would be sufficient.

“One [bus] per year is a little slow,” said Biniek in response, pointing out that, at that rate, it would take 18 years to fully replace Rappahannock’s fleet. “We may need more at first . . . we need the money to operate and create the quality education we expect.”

Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier said he had several complaints with the budget, and said he believed a $250,000 increase was “a more accurate number.”

“There’s money to be freed up in this budget,” Frazier said. “The school board seems to be real good at deferring maintenance on things. If the money’s not getting there, that’s not our fault.”

Frazier said he believed there were still other areas of the budget that could be analyzed, including the health care plan, which was revised by the school board earlier this year. Frazier added that there was no staffing plan in place for the schools – a point raised by Washington resident Jeffrey Knight at previous school budget hearings.

Lastly, Frazier said that, although the school board has claimed parts of the budget are addressing a five-to-10-year plan for the schools, that plan hasn’t been shared with the supervisors. “We don’t know where we’re going,” said Frazier.

“I’m thoroughly disappointed with the federal and state governments with the money they give us,” said Wakefield district supervisor and board chair Roger Welch. “They’re starting us off on the left foot to begin with . . . There are people who won’t be able to pay any [tax] increase . . . Nothing can make everything right.”

The board then voted, 3-2, to allocate $300,000 to the school budget. Frazier and Biniek voted no, the former wanting a larger cut, the latter a smaller one. “Hopefully that’ll be satisfactory,” said Welch.

Though the budget cuts will have the largest effect on recently hired superintendent Matthews, interim superintendent Grove said that she and the school board are now arranging meetings with Matthews “for a few days” in May and June. Matthews doesn’t officially take over the position until July 1.

As most of those in attendance dispersed during a short break, dissatisfied rumblings could be heard. As Welch pointed out, the supervisors April 29 budget hearing attracted a record 38 unique speakers – 28 of whom voiced their support of the budget, as proposed.

“I am disappointed with the BOS decision because I think our public schools truly need the requested resources and that our public school system is a sound local investment,” said Piedmont planning commissioner Gary Light in an email sent after the meeting.

“I hope and trust that the school board and incoming superintendent will make prudent decisions on how to distribute the smaller budget. I especially hope that the elementary school gets the much needed reading specialist and that our deserving teachers, administrators and school staff get a decent pay raise. Most of all I hope that the whole community will remain energized and engaged in making our Rappahannock Public Schools as good as they can be for students at every level of skill and achievement.”

The supervisors are holding a work session at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 15 to finalize the county’s own $22.5 million FY 2014 budget. Though public hearings on the budget have ended, the work session is open to the public. The board will finalize the budget at its June 6 meeting.