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.
“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