The Clarke County School Board formally presented its $24.9M budget request to the Board of Supervisors last night. The request includes $350K of additional funding over last year’s budget that the schools say is needed for operational and capital expenses as well as a “one-time” bonus for school staff. County Supervisors responded saying that the current county budget already includes a substantial increase for school and questioned the wisdom of providing a public employee a pay increase given the economic challenges facing the private sector of the economy.
“This is the fourth consecutive year of zero salary increases for our school staff” School Board chairperson Barbara Lee (Pine Grove) told the Supervisors. “Given the past budget challenges I believe with all of my heart that the School Board has fulfilled its duty to our students. However, this year we need an additional $200K for operating expenses and an additional $150K for capital improvements.”
Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy took the podium after Lee and recapped the various funding and budgeting challenges that have been informally passed between the two governing bodies over the past weeks. Murphy quickly zeroed in on the difficulties being caused by declining student enrollments, a trend that appears destined to continue over the next several years.
“We’ve lost 66 kids this year alone” Murphy said. “45% went to neighboring counties, many due to family economic and employment reasons. At the same time 134 new students have walked through the doors since the first day of school. There’s an ebb and flow to our student population that is very difficult to predict.”
While CCPS’s overall student census has dropped, Murphy said that the decrease does not always translate into direct cost reductions. For example, the loss of several students from a specific grade level does not necessarily mean that a teacher is not still required to teach the remaining student in the class. Murphy said that a certain level of infrastructure must be maintained in order to support a school.
Murphy said that much of the school district’s funding goes directly into critically important areas that he described as the “Big 3”; textbooks, technology and testing.
“Testing is going to be very important in our future” Murphy told the Supervisors. “Principals and teacher’s jobs will soon be on the line as accountability moves from a school’s â€˜average yearly progress’ to a more personal level where individual teachers and administrators begin to be held personally accountable.”
Murphy told the Supervisors that the combination of unfunded and under-funded state mandates combined with the cost of technology requirements and special education are draining the school district’s budget and its ability to provide quality education to students.
Murphy cited a recent Virginia Assembly unfunded mandate example where students from kindergarten through eighth grade now must receive an average of at least 150 minutes of PE per week, or an average of a half-hour a day. The legislation takes effect in the 2014-15 school year.
“Physical education is great but either the state or the locality has to pay for a teacher to provide it or the School board is faced with eliminating elective teachers in art, music or some other area.”
Murphy also said that lack of school funding is causing basic services like student transportation to suffer.
“We’ve had discussions with Loudoun County about purchasing two of their used school buses” Murphy said. “We really don’t want to have to do that but their used buses are better than what we are using today for our students.”
Murphy told the Supervisors that overall his budget includes only a minimal increase for operating expenses and basic capital funding necessary to keep the school district moving in the right direction. Murphy said that part of the formula for keeping the district moving in the right direction includes a pay increase for school staff.
Dr. Murphy told the supervisors that a 1% bonus for school staff will cost approximately $130K.
“We have some employees who make a lot of money and we have some employees who only make $13K a year” Murphy said. “We need to do what we can to compensate them because they are all very dedicated and take very good care of our kids.”
After listening to the school budget presentation, the Supervisors offered a somber and pragmatic response on the economic realities facing the county.
“The fact that we correctly estimated the number of students dropping to 675 re-enforces our decision to have built the high school for 800 students” said Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood). Joint Administrative Services director Tom Judge confirmed that the population decline appears to be an ongoing trend. Murphy said that the school district had been shocked to see the small size of this year’s Kindergarten enrollment and has since implemented plans to decrease two teaching positions at the elementary school level.
Staelin pointed out that Clarke County students are funded at $12,394 per student.
“It’s important for people to realize that that is a large amount of money” Staelin said. “The local portion is 13% and represents a big per pupil increase.” Staelin said that local education funding had increased in the proposed budget by 6.9% over last year although he acknowledged that the bulk of the increase is in debt service payments for the new school.
The Supervisors also expressed skepticism over the wisdom of offering bonuses to school employees given the current unpredictability of state funding for education support.
“If you do decide to provide a bonus I hope that your focus is on the employees who are just getting by” Staelin said. “By providing a salary adjustment you will be putting pressure on us to do something for county staff as well. County employees will look at the school district and ask why something isn’t being done for county government.”
Supervisor Staelin pointed out that the school district’s funding appears to be headed for an even deeper deficit next year. Of the nearly $10M in state and federal contribution to school funding for FY 2012, $375K will come from federal “Jobs” funding while $315K is money contributed by the Virginia Retirement System, both “one-time” contributions. In addition, $400K of the budget is comprised of carry-over funding from last year.
“That’s a big chunk of money” Supervisor Staelin noted. “That’s exactly why we always say that carry-over funds should only be used for one-time expenditures.”
Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) followed Staelin’s lead by asking Superintendent Murphy to justify increased spending in the current fiscal environment.
“Given so much pressure on funding in a year from now, what is your rational for doing it this way?” Hobert asked.
“Right now I am doing the best that I can to provide a quality education this year” Murphy replied. “We can’t forecast the impact of new unfunded mandates or changes in the sales tax let alone the economy. We just want to do the best that we can for kids today and in fiscal year 2012. We can only take one year at a time and know that there will be hard choices to make every year.”
“I hope that you will think about that at every school board meeting that you have” Chairman Hobert replied.
Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) said that while he understood the sentiment that teachers deserve pay raises, Weiss noted that many people in the private sector are in the same position.
“I appreciate all of the difficult cuts that you’ve made and we are all very aware of the problems that you face. However, I’m not sure that public employees should be getting a raise when most people in the private sector aren’t either” Weiss said. “$130K is a lot of money that you could be using for other things.”
“Next year will be as bad, or worse, than this year” Supervisor Staelin added. “Real estate tax revenue has a huge lag before it ever gets to the county treasurer. Building permitting and construction takes two years before tax revenues come in. We see nothing in the county right now that indicates that the real estate picture is changing. Funding from real estate will stay flat for the foreseeable future.”
“To be clear, you have not committed to a bonus for employees?” Hobert asked. “Is that correct?”
“That is correct” Murphy responded. “We have only had a conversation about a bonus.”
But despite the cautious economic approach urged by the Supervisors, last night’s discussion did not sway School Board officials from their intentions to provide school staff with some form of compensation, even if only a token amount.
“I don’t know how much it is going to be but we are committed to providing something” School Board chairperson Barbara Lee (Pine Grove) said after the meeting. “Even if it is only a small amount we want to show that we really care about what teachers are doing for students. I just remember how much it meant to me when I was a teacher to know that people cared about what I was doing. Four years is way too long to go without a pay raise.”
“This board has had no discussions about giving bonuses to county employees” John Staelin said after the meeting. “If the schools do this it will put pressure on us to do the same thing. If they are going to use the money that way I would recommend that they divide it among the teachers that have the most direct contact with students.”
Asked if he believed that the school district should hold off on a bonus for school staff because of the salary increase implications for county employees Dr. Murphy responded:
“Equity in work force pay is important. I believe that the county and the school board have an obligation to ensure that all employees are adequately compensated and receive appropriate benefits as public servants.”
Supervisors Barbara Byrd (Berryville) and Pete Dunning (White Post) were not present for last night’s discussion.