School board eyes 10 buses

After the supervisors trimmed about $146,000 from the proposed 2013-2014 school budget earlier last week, the Rappahannock County School Board decided in a work session Thursday night (May 9) to at least leave intact a 3-percent salary increase for teachers and staff.

That across-the-board raise was one of two major focuses of this year’s school budget, which was originally proposed as a $445,932 increase over last year’s budget, but was cut down to $300,000 by the supervisors May 6. The budget now stands at $12.47 million.

The other major focus was replacing the school division’s aging bus fleet, which, according to the school system’s administration director Robert Stump, is one of the oldest in the state. Ten of Rappahannock’s 27 buses are at least 15 years old, and 11 are between 14 and 20 years old. The school board had built $155,022 into the budget to allow them to start replacing two school buses every year, with help from a federal grant program.

Interim superintendent Kathleen Grove recommended the board comply with the supervisors’ bottom line by cutting half of the money for the two replacement buses ($77,511) and eliminating an unnamed central office position ($133,024, including benefits and insurance costs).

Those cuts would actually be more than what the supervisors required; Grove suggested the money could be used to repair the school’s 14-passenger bus as well as update the high school’s math and chemistry books.

Grove further suggested the board modify the athletic director position to include acting as a facilities supervisor ($13,868), a recommendation the board agreed with and approved at its regular meeting Tuesday night (May 14). The board also unanimously agreed to cut the administrative office position.

Jackson district board member Amy Hitt offered an alternative strategy, however. Hitt agreed with cutting the central office position, but advised leaving the transportation funds intact, instead cutting $35,158 previously reserved for state-mandated adoption of new textbooks; Hitt suggested that cost could be covered by the board’s end-of-year funds this year.

Hitt then proposed a novel solution to replace the school system’s buses, presenting the board with a quote from Sonny Merriman, a Virginia bus dealership. Hitt said she spoke to Fauquier County transportation director Cheryl Fisher, who placed an order with Sonny Merriman for more buses than the county can use after Fauquier’s Board of Supervisors only approved funding for eight.

Hitt said Rappahannock could lease the remaining 10 “top of the line” new Thomas buses for $134,000 (less than the $155,000 already in the budget). The school system would be locked into that rate (a yearly fee, which includes a 1.8-percent interest rate) for the next six years, but could also replace half its fleet in time for the start of the school year in August.

“If we only replace two buses a year, the fleet will be old before it’s ever new,” Hitt said.

Even if Rappahannock received funding from the federal bus grant, those buses wouldn’t be available until December. Furthermore, Hitt said, the grant is run off a lottery system, meaning Rappahannock might not even win. Meanwhile, the grant may not be available in future years (it is renewed on a year-by-year basis).

Hitt also suggested that, with the money the board would save on maintenance and fuel costs with new buses, in six years they could potentially have enough money to lease another 10 buses for the same price, replacing the entire fleet in just six years. The current replacement model, Hitt and board member Chris Ubben pointed out, would take between 10 and 18 years to fully replace the fleet.

“Buying one bus a year leaves us no better off than we are right now,” said Ubben.

Though the other board members agreed it was an attractive offer, board chairman John Lesinski and Paul Brown expressed some concerns over the proposal. Brown pointed out that most of the projected savings from the new buses relied on decreased maintenance costs, which would actually rise after the first year as the buses accumulated more wear and tear.

“We’re not not going to save $40,000 [in repair costs] every year,” Brown said.

Lesinski also pointed out that potentially replacing the whole fleet at once means the buses would all age at the same rate, putting the school division’s future stewards in the same predicament as the current board, requiring another mass replacement down the line.

“I just want to make sure this is the wisest way to spend the taxpayer’s money and do what we need to do with it,” said Lesinski. “I’m intrigued by the opportunity . . . [but] I think replacing five might make more sense than 10.”

Lesinski and Brown also expressed concerns over being locked into paying $134,000 every year for the next six years, citing increased future health care costs.

“I’m worried it’s going to look like we tried to put one over on the board of supervisors,” Brown said, advocating that more research be done and the supervisors be informed of the board’s new option. Lesinski agreed, adding that it was important the school board “be mindful of that relationship.”

“I agree we need to converse with the board of supervisors . . . [but] tell them this opportunity fell into my lap . . . It won’t be available next year, and we won’t come across it again,” Hitt said Tuesday night, adding that if the board made the loan payments a line item, it would be safe from possible future budget cuts.

“We’re always going to have to find the money for something,” said Ubben. “This is a good deal. I don’t see how anyone could take offense at it . . . We can’t pass it up just because someone might be offended.”

The board members agreed to set up a meeting with members of the board of supervisors; as of Tuesday, a date had not been set. Though the board has until the end of June to formally adopt a budget, Hitt said the offer from Sonny Merriman expires at the end of this month.