Citing “difficult financial times for our nation, the Commonwealth, the County and our County’s citizens,” the Clarke County Board of Supervisors broke today with its tradition of returning school carryover funds for one time acquisition requests by the Clarke County School Board. The move highlights a fundamental difference of opinion about how best to use scarce tax dollars in a challenging economic climate. In attempting to avoid concerns over earning parity between government staff and school staff, the Supervisors also approved a bonus plan for Clarke County’s non-school employees.
“We have to look at the future and the fiscal condition of the county,” said Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood) who authored the amendment that passed four to one with Supervisor Dunning (White Post) opposed. “Most years in the past CCPS has come to the Board of Supervisors and requested supplemental appropriations for things that they need. If we approve all of the carryover money for this one purpose there won’t be anything left to give them later.”
Staelin said that the Board ultimately wants all of the carryover money to still go to the school district but believes that other needs will likely arise in the future that will also require funding.
“I want to see all of the money go to the schools but I don’t think that the entire amount should be used for this purpose,” Staelin said.
Staelin’s proposal reduced the school board appropriation to $150K from the requested $264K while also allocating approximately $50K in bonuses for the county’s non-school government employees.
Clarke County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy who has been a strong supporter of the bonus plan expressed disappointment over the Supervisors’ decision to reduce the School Board’s budget appropriation request.
“Failure to recognize Clarke County’s employees during austere times when funds have been set aside for that purpose is disappointing,” Murphy said after observing the debate and vote by the Supervisors. “To demonstrate as much fiscal responsibility as the school board has demonstrated and to then question the school board’s motives is sad.”
Acknowledging that Clarke County government employees and school district employees have not received a salary increase in the past three years and will not receive a raise in fiscal year 2012, Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) said that for him, the lack of salary increases is not a performance question but rather a policy question.
“We all agree and are very appreciative of all of Clarke County’s government employees, including our teachers,” Hobert said. “But this is a policy decision and not whether the school staff has done a good job or not.”
Supervisor Pete Dunning (White Post), voiced opposition to allocating any funds to the bonus plan and called the request “fiscally irresponsible.”
“I’m opposed to this because the economic times don’t dictate this kind of an action,” Dunning said. “This may make some people feel good but it really bothers me as a resident, a taxpayer and a Supervisor.”
Dunning questioned the timeliness of what he repeatedly labeled as a “salary increase” especially when Clarke County’s per capita income, according to Dunning’s sources, is $23,500 compared to the average county teacher salary of $43,600.
Dunning also offered a vigorous warning of the financial challenges faced by both county government and the school division due to several looming storms on the fiscal horizon.
“For one thing the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) is really a disaster and is only funded at 70% of what it needs to be. At the same time, property values in Clarke County are down 25-30 percent and the schools are losing students. On top of that the town’s financial situation is not very good,” Dunning said. “We are faced with tremendous costs right now. Taking a raise right now sends the wrong message because we don’t have any idea of how we will pay the piper later on. We need to wait a year on this and see how things look then.”
Superintendent Murphy expressed a different a view.
“In times of austerity if we fail to recognize and support the people who take care of our children we have done a terrible disservice to the working man [and woman],” Murphy said. “FY13 is FY13 and when it gets here we’ll figure out a way to deal with it then.”
Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Buckmarsh) mirrored Dunning’s concern over how the school division will deal with future financial challenges if the entire carryover balance were dedicated to a teacher bonus.
“Next year is going to be rough and there probably won’t be any carryover,” Byrd said. “I am all for giving the teachers a pat on the back but we have a responsibility to ensure that things are safe for next year. To deplete a pot of funds that aren’t going to be replaced doesn’t make sense.”
Part of Byrd’s and Dunning’s concern stems from the fact the Clarke County School system will lose $360,000 in Federal stimulus funds next year which could place the division in a situation with minimal financial reserves to fall back on in FY12 and FY13.
“I think that it’s odd for government employees to get a raise when they are paid by citizens who are experiencing equally hard times,” Weiss said. “Had this proposal been funded by new money, rather than carryover funds, I would not have voted for it.”
Chairman Hobert was the only Supervisor to express support for approving the entire $246K request and at one point during the discussion attempted to offer a “friendly” amendment to Supervisor Staelin’s that proposal. Hobert said that for him the issue wasn’t as much about the money as it was respecting the School Board’s autonomy and attempting to preserve the positive working relationship that has existed between the two boards over the past three years.
“I’m opposed to the motion but I appreciate Mr. Staelin’s attempt to address the issue in a fair and balanced way,” Hobert said. “But I think that it is a fundamental error to go down this road because our policy has been to return carryover funds back to the School Board for one time expenditures. It is very important for us to honor the wishes of our School Board colleagues because they have taken courageous steps to manage their budget. It’s their decision and I think that this sends a signal that we don’t want to be sending.”
However, Hobert’s concerns did little to sway the opinions of his colleagues and the friendly amendment was quickly rejected.
Staelin’s resolution also authorized budget appropriations of $37,867 to the county’s FY11 General Fund, $4,444 to the Joint Services Fund and $7,689 to the Social Services Fund for the payment of a one-time bonus to employees of those agencies. Although the details of the government bonus plan have not been completely specified, the $50K amount hints of a structure comparable to the school bonus plan.
Although today’s bonus appropriation vote ended in a reluctant approval, the Supervisors went one step further to ensure that any future economic fallout from the decision will be placed at the doorstep of the school board and school administrators.
Release of the $150K bonus funding is contingent upon receipt of a letter from the School Board stating that School Board has no better uses for these funds – textbooks, technology, etc. – in FY11 or FY12; that the School Board understands that FY13 will be a very tough year financially because $360,000 in Federal stimulus dollars will no longer be available after FY12; and that the School Board would rather use $150K from its carryover fund balance for bonuses in FY11 than to have that money available in FY13 to avoid laying off two full time equivalent staff positions.
No school board members were present for today’s debate and vote on the appropriation other than Dr. Murphy. When asked whether the school board will go forward with the bonus plan given the strong public opposition to the idea by the Supervisors Murphy said, “I have to go back to the School Board and see what they want to do.”
The next regular Clarke County School Board Meeting will be held on June 6th at 7:00 PM in the Town/County Government Center.