Budget pressures amid sharp enrollment decline at Rappahannock public schools

Proposed 4 percent raise in teacher salaries with no budget increase

Hispanic students outnumber blacks more than 3 to 1

Twenty months ago, when the 2016-17 school year drew to a close, Rappahannock County Public Schools had a PreK-Grade 12 enrollment of 948 students. Today, the enrollment has dropped to 829 — 119 fewer pupils.

And it’s not a one-time blip. Five years ago the combined enrollment in the county’s elementary and high schools was at 970 — 141 more students than today.

“Enrollment and ADM [Average Daily Membership] trends, those are always on our minds,” Rappahannock County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley remarked at last week’s school board meeting — understandable given the impacts dwindling enrollments have on a school system.

Rappahannock’s declining student body is one of the bigger hurdles Grimsley and her staff face as they envision scenarios for the school system’s fiscal 2020 budget, including a “governor’s budget” reduction this coming year surrounding “enrollment loss” funding amounting to $75,000.

Grimsley presented the board with FY20 Budget Building Blocks, with key considerations surrounding declining school enrollment, expected budget earmarks from Richmond and Rappahannock County (77 percent of late), new state mandates, retaining and recruiting talented teachers, maintaining the integrity of effective programs, and capital improvement needs (some of the “big ticket items” have already been completed, she said).

Until Tuesday, there was also a foreseen 12 percent ($198,564) increase in school health insurance costs — fortunately not the case after all — which could not have come at a worse time, given Grimsley is intent on providing teachers with a 4 percent salary increase aimed at “recruitment and retention” during a time when surrounding school districts have raised salaries.

A December 2018 Virginia Education Association study of nine Piedmont area school districts found Rappahannock had the lowest starting teacher salary (bachelor’s degree) of $40,742. Beginning teachers’ pay is higher in Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Frederick, Madison, Page, Orange and Shenandoah, averaging in the $42,000-$43,000 range.

In Rappahannock Schools’ own just-concluded survey on budget priorities — with 52 percent of the 233 respondents being school parents and 30 percent community members — almost 67 percent identified teacher/staff salaries as “most important for consideration in the next school budget.” The second top reply was school safety.

The superintendent’s initial “maximum cost” projection for additional needed funds in the coming year had amounted to $578,566, which included the 4 percent salary increase amounting to $300,000, hiring a full-time social worker at $80,000, and the expected 12 percent hike in health insurance costs.

But late Tuesday Grimsley updated her teaching staff with “great news . . . our health insurance came in at a ‘0 percent’ increase for the third year in a row! . . . . This absolutely saved our budget and our ability to give you the raises you deserve.”

As a result, she said her proposed budget released next week “will incorporate the following: No change to your benefits, a 4 percent across the board raise, funds to support additional endorsements, a full time MSW School Social Worker position, a new bus” and continued facilities upgrades and classroom remodels.

Grimsley added: “We had to make reductions in our overall budget, especially due to the fact that our enrollment is steadily declining. So, we reduced the administration by removing the RCHS AP position completely, and also removing one open teacher position. Since we now have a comprehensive agreement with Honeywell, we were able to reduce funds for HVAC repair . . .

“So, all in all, we do not plan to ask the county for an increase to our budget, even with everything we were able to do to support our needs. I am hopeful that this will make for an easier budget adoption.”

The superintendent said the school board will hold a public hearing on the draft budget on March 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school auditorium. The supervisors will hold a public hearing on both the school and county budget on April 22 in the RCES auditorium at 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, school board member Rachel Bynum informed Grimsley after last week’s meeting that she was reaching out to Rappahannock State Delegate Michael J. Webert to see what could be done about losing “enrollment loss” funding from the governor’s budget.

Bynum also circulated a news story from Richmond showing the proposed House of Delegates budget for the coming fiscal year would pull almost $5 million from rural school districts like Rappahannock and redistribute the funding to wealthier school divisions surrounding large cities.

Finally, in providing the Rappahannock News with current enrollment figures, Grimsley broke down the current RCPS student population. Of its 829 students, 84 percent are listed as white, 7 percent black and white, 6.5 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black. There are 439 males and 390 females in the two schools.

About John McCaslin 449 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.