Supervisors Flat Line School Budget, School Board Ponders Response

The Clarke County Board of Supervisors and the School Board were in agreement yesterday; both sides acknowledge that a serious budget deficit is looming for the county’s students and teachers. What the two elected bodies do not agree on, so far at least, is how to fix the school system’s financial woes.

Members of Berryville Boy Scout Troop 34 opened last night's School Board meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance. The troop, led by Scoutmaster Brian Ulbrich, observed the meeting as part of its Community Service merit achievement badge requirement - Photo Edward Leonard

“As we all work to develop our fiscal year 2012 budgets, I am sure you are aware of the challenges we all face. Our preliminary budget work with Mr. Judge confirms a substantial anticipated budget deficit,” said Clarke County Board of Supervisors Chairman, Michael Hobert (Berryville) in a letter sent yesterday to School Board Chairman, Barbara Lee (Millwood).

In the letter, Hobert told Lee that although the Supervisors have raised taxes over the last several years, his board plans to hold the line on tax increases this year in response to economic pressures citizens continue to face due to the “Great Recession.”

Hobert offered Lee a plan to increase local school funding by 4% ($559K), but only in so far as to cover the increase in local school debt service. However, Hobert said, no additional local money will be forthcoming for school operations.

In the face of Hobert’s unambiguous financial moratorium, the School Board and the Clarke County Education Association offered a different viewpoint saying that holding school funding at current levels won’t work.

“Our public schools are more than balance sheets, they’re 2032 living, breathing students who look to the Clarke County Public School staff to give them the best educational opportunity that they can get,” said Clarke County Education Association President, Andrew Kiser. “The thought of cutting more teaching positions is not an easy thing to hear. The more teachers that you cut, the fewer options that you can provide for our students. Cutting teacher positions will threaten our ability to deliver a world class education.”

Kiser’s statements came at last night’s public hearing after CCPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy presented a scenario where CCPS may be required to reduce 8.5 teaching positions in order to make up the funding shortfall needed to keep schools operating at their present budget level.

“We are $519K away from having a balanced budget,” Murphy told the school board last night. “At the same time our needs continue to increase more than ever before. We can certainly eliminate the teaching staff positions and not buy school buses in order to ensure a balanced budget. But we need to make investments in staff and infrastructure in order to keep moving forward.”

Murphy described for the school board that CCPS has seen approximately $1.387 M in budget reductions since FY08 (July 1, 2007).

“We have absorbed that much, and are now being asked to absorb more. Of course, we have choices; purchase less technology; buy one (or two) fewer buses; cut operating costs such as stipends; eliminate sports. But at some point the choices will need additional discussion.”

Murphy also voiced concern about the many existing “unknowns” that could impact this year’s CCPS budget, many of which outside are outside the control of the school system and the county supervisors.

For example, on Friday Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuchinelli (R) issued an opinion saying that it’s illegal for public schools to require students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses to pay the AP course fee. Cuchinelli said that no state law specifically allows schools to mandate the AP fee, and that elementary and secondary education is generally required to be free.

“Accordingly,” Cuchinelli wrote, “it is my opinion that a local school board cannot impose a mandatory fee on students taking advanced placement courses for the required taking of the Advanced Placement Examination.”

If Cuchinelli’s opinion is upheld against what are certain to be legal challenges by localities, it will generate a significant unfunded expense for Clarke County and other school systems.

Murphy also pointed to the current uncertainty in the Virginia General Assembly where the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate still have not decided on education funding level support.

Murphy’s final budget, which is being worked on now despite the General Assembly funding information vacuum, needs to be in the hands of the Clarke County Supervisors by early March.

This year’s $519K CCPS budget challenge is comprised of a Virginia Retirement System rate increase that CCPS has decided to not pass on to teachers ($365K) and an additional capital shortfall that CCPS had expected to receive from the supervisors to cover infrastructure improvements including buses and technology ($154K).

Based on last night’s discussion it appears that the $154K previously expected from the Board of Supervisors has been canceled.

In Supervisor Hobert’s letter to School Board Chairman Lee, Hobert said that the Supervisors recognize that all areas of local government (including schools) face state funding cuts and new unfunded mandates. Hobert went on to say that it is clear that Clarke Schools face the additional challenge of “adjusting for the substantial decrease our schools have seen in student enrollment (about 10% in 5 years), which have lowered student/teacher ratios, raised per pupil funding from the Supervisors but resulted in reduced state funding.”

“We also recognize federal ‘JOBS’ funding for education is not expected to be available after FY12 and will cause additional fiscal pressures in FY13,” Hobert said.

JOBS funds provide CCPS with approximately $360K of one-time Federal funding over which CCPS has discretionary authority to use for teacher’s salaries or other similar costs. Murphy said that while the JOBS funding will be helpful this year, there isn’t any funding in the budgetary pipeline to take its place next year or in subsequent budget years.

Hobert’s letter concluded by asking the school board to not ask for additional funds.

“We respect and appreciate all of the efforts you are making to manage with fewer resources during this period. As we have previously said, we believe our teachers and administration are performing very well under these difficult circumstances and your continuing work in this regard is greatly appreciated. We request you continue to do what you can to fashion a request that meets the above goals for the coming year,” Hobert said.

“Based on the letter from Chairman Hobert to Chairman Lee, the Board of Supervisors’ budget is set and we know how much is going to be available for schools,” Murphy said.

Despite the preemptive budgetary wet blanket that the Supervisors have cast over CCPS’s funding hopes, there was strong support from school board members to press for more money by providing the Supervisors with details that show CCPS’s increasing budget drains from unfunded mandates.

Several school board members agreed last night that the Supervisors should be presented with a budget that fully details what the school system requires so that the community can fully appreciate the severity of the financial situation.

“It’s our duty to the public and students to put forward a reasonable budget for what we need,” said school board member, Jennifer Welliver (Berryville). “Then the Board of Supervisors have to do their job based on our request and allocate what they decide we need.”

“I agree that we need to use some of the JOBS funds for teacher bonuses,” said school board member Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh). “It’s long overdue.”

School board member, Robina Bouffault endorsed the idea of providing the Supervisors with justification on why additional funding is needed. “We need to provide data that is specific about numbers and specific about staff positions.”

Bouffault went on to say that she was angered that the Commonwealth was not adequately supporting local education. “The state is welshing on its responsibilities to localities and schools and is not living up to its obligations. Period. And it makes me very angry.”

Whether the Supervisors will be swayed by the school board providing additional funding data remains to be seen. In the meantime, Dr. Murphy said that his FY12 budget goals will include:

    • Protect the integrity of CCPS academic programs
    • Maintain our FY11 priority of investing in CCPS staff
    • Hold all employees harmless from the Virginia Retirement System dilemma
    • Provide all employees with a salary increase or “hardship payment”
    • Implement relevant technology solutions (e.g., Web 2.0 services)
    • Implement required technology solutions (e.g., on-line SOL testing)

Murphy explained the CCPS “per pupil” expenditure remains well below state and local averages. The result, Murphy said, is that CCPS has had to leave many important educational components under-funded or unfunded. “If we were funded just at the state average we would have $2.8 M more than we have today,” Murphy said. “We are working at far below the state average.”

Murphy said that by repurposing how CCPS uses its limited resources he plans to address some of those areas that have been under or unfunded  including technology, facilities, instruction support, efficiency improvements, and salaries and benefits.

Murphy said that as CCPS enrollment declines (down about 175 students since its peak in FY 07) he plans to look for opportunities to reduce annual recurring expenditures by shifting salary costs to areas where there is an emerging or greater need. Murphy specifically cited:

    • Elementary ITRT (1.0 FTE – licensed)
    • Elementary and secondary TRT (2.0 FTE – classified)
    • SPED Autism teacher (1.0 FTE – licensed)
    • Adjustment of existing PE and Music IA to licensed teachers
    • Limited staffing adjustments in maintenance and other areas (220 to 227 and 240 to 247)
    • Technology purchases
    • Supplies and materials
    • Funding for Problem Solving FTE (staffing contingency)
    • Salary differential for VRS (approximately .25% FICA)

According to Murphy’s budget, a reduction of 8.16 full-time-equivalent (FTE ) staff, if necessary, would be eliminated through:

    • 2.0 FTE Elementary – Licensed
    • 2.0 FTE World Language – Licensed
    • 2.0 FTE Instructional Assistants
    • 1.66 FTE Secondary Electives
    • 0.50 ARRA Funded Position

Murphy told the Clarke County School Board that it really only had three options when it comes to this year’s budget; Approve the Superintendent’s budget as presented; Meet and deliberate once the ramifications of the House and Senate budgets are known (Conference Committee concludes February 25, 2011; deadline for School Board budget presentation to the Board of Supervisor  is March 1, 2011); or Amend Superintendent’s budget after additional review  and discussion

“Many options exist” Murphy said, “But none are very good.”

Comments

  1. Interested bysitter says:

    So…even without knowing the specific needs of the division, the largest employer in the county, the supervisors have arbitrarily drawn a line in the sand? They have thus also told the sheriff’s office the same thing, when the need for additional staff is well-documented.

    I agree with others that the state has regularly underfunded, or outright not funded, its mandates and obligations. It has also created budgetary gimmicks (hello, car tax rebate!) or borrowed from one fund to fill another (hello, $650 million from the VRS pension fund) instead of looking ahead and finding the needed revenue.

    However, costs haven’t gone down. To further slash the schools’ budget really, to me, seems to be penny-wise but pound foolish. This county needs to invest in its schools adequately; clearly, this has not been done, and cannot be done with the proposed cuts outlined above. It ain’t fair to the staff, and it certainly ain’t fair to the kids. The supervisors need to rethink their position…

    • “The supervisors need to rethink their position…”

      No, their position is well known and well documented. It’s time that the citizens of Clarke County decide that the current BOS does not have the best interests of the citizens in mind and start voting them out. You want more services or at least better ones…elect an official with the cajones to either bring businesses in or raise the taxes on the citizens to give them what they want.

      • Maybe they keep getting reelected because they give the majority what they want.

        • So, the majority doesn’t want our teachers to be given pay raises for 3 years? The majority doesn’t want a proper High School? The majority doesn’t want adequate fire/rescue services?

          I find that hard to believe.

          • It is a bummer when you run out of other peoples money. Maybe the folks that have children in school would like to kick in more funds for the services they are receiving?

            I am happy with the BOS holding the line on tax increases.

          • livein22611 says:

            Well, since I have not needed the rescue squad or police services I guess I should not have to pay for those, according to this line of thinking. Come to think of it, Social Security won’t be there when I need it so let’s take this line of reasoning to a federal level too.
            Steve, one thing to keep in mind is that even though you may not have kids in school, one day these children will be handling what’s left of your retirement fund and your medical care too. Let’s keep them educated for your own good. Just curious, how were you educated?

  2. Not that I’m complaining, but I just received a $1200 tax refund check from my Mortgage Company because my real estate taxes dropped by that much. My accountant confirmed this. I’d be willing to bet that most of my neighbors got about the same thing. If the schools need money, but the Supervisors are keeping the Real Estate Tax Rate revenue neutral, who the heck got screwed for higher real estate taxes to make up the difference?

    • Sounds like your mortgage service provider was holding back to much in escrow for your real estate taxes. I have not seen my real estate taxes drop over the last 15 years. They have only gone up.

    • “who the heck got screwed for higher real estate taxes to make up the difference?” That would be me, and all the people in Clarke County that I know. My taxes are double what they were five years ago.

      This is why enrollment is dropping. The current generation cannot afford to have children because we are getting taxed to death by the last generations inability to manage expenses.

      Fire some teachers, cancel some projects, quit grossly overpaying for every acquisition. Public schools are there for education. They are not your day care provider,or you recreational sports center. Saying we are below the average cost per student is a BS excuse to raise taxes. If everyone chases the average, then the average will continually rise.

      If you want all of these extras from your state and local government, then I suggest you pay for them. I think people seriously under estimate the fiscal crap storm we are heading into as a county, state and country.

  3. Sarge Willis says:

    I suspect the reason you, Rightwinger, received a refund on your real estate taxes is because the value of your home went down, as most home values in the county did. I wouldn’t go out and spent it on luxuries though, you will need it since the cost of everything else, food, gas, electric, etc., seems to be increasing at an alarming rate. As for the CC School Board and Supervisors, I’d like to believe they are looking to the future since the costs of all services to the county, not just the school budget, will also go up.

    • The assessed value did decrease. In order to keep the property taxes revenue neutral, they raised the rates. Again, I like the reduction, but somebody had to pay the difference. Who?

      BTW, the $1200 went right into the college fund.

  4. clarkehaven says:

    fiscal responsibility is in such short supply these days…if only the federal government had as much respect for taxpayer’s money as does Clarke County government our children would not be facing a future saddled with overwhelming public debt.

    It appears that there may be a substantial number of county residents who appreciate this fiscal responsibility……they may not use this forum to post their complaints but thank goodness they VOTE!

  5. Jim Gibson says:

    It is interesting that this, as with so many articles on here, has quickly polarized into the two predictable camps – don’t raise taxes for anything vs. we need to pay the public employees better.

    The reality is that, yes, times are tough and the County should live within its means. However, it is also incumbent upon Clarke to provide an adequate level of services – a free and appropriate education for its children (NK-12, gifted to special ed); a sheriff’s department that can adequately cover staffing needs without banking on “comp time” IOUs; and so forth. The cost of living hasn’t stopped rising just because times are tough.

    One of the shortcomings of the “cut taxes to the bone” mantra is that…at some point…the community will not be able to provide an adequate level of service. That would be most unfortunate, in my opinion. The community needs to invest in its personnel, and the services it provides. Clarke County is in the top 20% of Virginia municipalities in per capita and household income; this is why the state doesn’t send more money our way.

    Investing in the personnel and services to support its population will better position this county to meet the challenges of the recovery, which is beginning to show signs of real life. It would also behoove the county officials to truly rethink their hardline stance on restrictive economic growth policies, so that the burden doesn’t fall solely on the homeowners and property owners.