Public Plays Hookey from School Budget Meeting

Tuesday night’s school budget meeting was held in the high school media center in order to accommodate a large public turnout.  Proposed budget cuts including teacher layoffs and increased class sizes hang in the balance as the School Board awaits final education budget allocations from Richmond. But in spite of  the potential  impacts only a few members of the public decided to participate.

Clarke County Public School Superintendent, Dr. Michael Murphy, provided a comprehensive overview of the school system’s track record of academic excellence characterized by the slogan “In Clarke County, we light the fires of learning!” Murphy said that despite having the next to lowest per pupil expenditure in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, Clarke has consistently maintained both higher than average test scores and low class sizes accompanied by a nearly non-existent drop-out rate. However, proposed funding cuts driven by decreased tax revenues statewide now threaten to extinguish Clarke’s academic flame. While Murphy offered a brave plan for dealing with Clarke’s budget adversity it was clear that maintaining Clarke’s  high standards will not be possible should the Commonwealth follow through with its nearly $1 million of proposed local budget cuts.

Dr. Michael Murphy

Dr. Michael Murphy

Budget uncertainties were further fueled this week by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s unprecedented $731 million proposed cut to local education. McDonnell said, “In the cost saving strategies recommended to the legislature, I am calling for a restoration of some of the proposed cuts to public safety and no further cuts to higher education. Tough times call for setting priorities. Public safety and higher education have been cut significantly in recent years and cannot sustain further reductions.” The response from Virginia educators was swift. Virginia Education Association President Kitty Boitnott said McDonnell is balancing the budget on the backs of our school children. Boitnott believes that the potential cuts could trigger 28,500 lost education jobs.

McDonnell has further complicated the local budget planning process by failing to offer his own comprehensive education budget, having opted instead to pass much of the decision making on to the General Assembly. McDonnell’s move has forced the School Board to use former Governor Tim Kaine’s budget for planning purposes even though the Kaine budget will certainly be replaced. Under the Kaine budget Clarke schools would be forced to implement austerity measures including staff layoffs, “pay-to-participate” fees and larger class sizes.

McDonnell has said that he will support updating the Local Composite Index, the formula which determines state and local education funding responsibility, which may potentially restore approximately $1 million in local funding to Clarke. In either case, Dr. Murphy said that approximately $493K in FY09 carry-over funds will need to be returned to the schools by the Board of Supervisors, either for operating expenditures under the Kaine budget or capital expenditures under McDonnell’s plan.

Only one Clarke citizen spoke at the hearing.

Rene Callahan of Berryville cited the importance of food, shelter and clothing as basic necessities for learning. “The sorry state of our school kitchen equipment does not offer our students the food quality that they deserve.” Callahan also urged the School Board to continue to invest in library resources including professional library staff, books, and databases.

Andrew Kiser, President of the Clarke County Education Association and the Johnson-Williams Middle School Library-Media Specialist, said he was encouraged that the School Board was seeking level funding for the FY11 school budget but believes that continued budget cuts will push the faculty past the point of no return. Kiser praised the school system’s success in doing more with less but said, “Just imagine what we could accomplish if we had the resources that we really need?”

The School Board will have a detailed version of the FY11 school budget available on its website for public review. The school budget hearing has been continued until February 22nd to allow for public comment. Public comments may be presented at the hearing or can be submitted to Budget@Clarke.K12.Va.US