The Clarke Supervisors told the School Board on Tuesday to limit spending for the new high school to $33.2M and to not incur any additional debt until 2017. The move releases enough spending authority for construction and furnishing of the new high school to go forward but at the same time places reserve hold against the $7.2 M of surplus funds. The Supervisors also directed that the School Board develop a list of funding priorities for future projects but stipulated that no project go forward without the Supervisor’s approval.
“The list of funding priorities should only use currently available funds and not use additional debt service prior to 2017” John Staelin said in a motion that was unanimously approved by the Supervisors.
Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert said that there needs to be a thoughtful review of how the surplus funds can best be used to support education in Clarke County.
“We need an evaluation of the surplus because the funds belong to the community. That evaluation must include a full and frank conversation about the use of the funds” Hobert said.
“We’re ready to have that conversation” Murphy replied.
At issue are two funding sources; a $3.67M cash fund that was generated over a number of years as the Board of Supervisors annually set aside approximately$500K for school construction and an additional $3.46M in Virginia Public School Authority bond funds.
The $3.76M cash fund is controlled solely by the Board of Supervisors and does not necessarily have to be used for school or education purposes. The $3.46M VPSA bond funding, by law, can only be used for school construction or renovation.
While yesterday’s budget directive falls within the normal fiduciary responsibilities of Virginia county supervisor oversight, there appears to be some concern on the part of the Supervisors about the fiscal responsibility of the School Board.
“The $7.1M windfall is an opportunity for us to not raise people’s taxes” said Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh). “We need to utilize the money only to meet the deficiencies in the old schools.”
Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Russell) said that each of the School Board members have their own areas that they would like to spend on. “We just can’t do that” Byrd lamented.
“That’s because a couple of them don’t have any business experience” another supervisor replied.
Chairman Michael Hobert questioned the initiative forwarded by the School Board to spend money for excess classroom space in light of projected flat-line population demographics. Hobert cited recent statements by CCHS Principal Dr. John Werner. “The high school principal says that he doesn’t need the eight additional classrooms” Hobert said.
Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood), who introduced the spending constraint resolution earlier in the day, re-emphasized his desire to follow a well-designed set of budget priorities.
“We need the capital spending priorities as soon as possible and before commencing any new projects” Staelin said.
Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) echoed Staelin’s position.“We don’t want to go down the path where they want to “spend it” and we want to “hold it” Supervisory Weiss said. “We need to spend appropriately.”
While the tone of yesterday’s discussion was cautionary, it was also clear that the Supervisors hope to avoid the adversarial position that characterized previous relationships between the School Board and the Board of Supervisors.
“It’s very important to maintain a close working relationship with the School Board” Supervisor Byrd said. “We need to try very hard to keep our lines of communication open.’
The new financial directive issued yesterday stems, in part, from a growing debate surrounding the surplus funds. There have been a number of discussions and suggestions by both school board members and by school staff related to how the surplus schools funds can best be used. Because the $3.46M VPSA funds are mandated for school construction by law, there has been little disagreement that those funds should be used to renovate existing school buildings.
The non-VPSA funding has elicited a different discussion.
Because spending, or not spending, the $3.76M cash fund can occur at the sole discretion of the Supervisors, many have come to see the money as the potential solution to a host of individual budget priorities. For example, concerns that the separation of agriculture students from the main school campus will weaken the agriculture program could be solved through use of the funds; Re-introduction of a greenhouse into the school design could be accommodated; School employee salary raises, which have been stagnant for several years, has been suggested as an appropriate use for a portion of the funding.
Perhaps the biggest financial divergence between the Supervisors and the School Board is the Supervisor’s reigning in the School Board’s informal plan to add eight apparently unnecessary classrooms to the new high school. Doing away with the modification, totaling 10,000 square feet of space, will alone generate savings of approximately $1.5M based on the estimated construction cost of $150 per square foot.
The Board of Supervisor’s statement that it intends to be an active participant in future School Board decisions, at the very least, signals a change of course for future education funding decisions in Clarke County.
Other County Budget News
Regional Bail Budget Mix-up
Clarke County’s FY 2011 budget line item for the regional jail had to be unexpectedly increased by $55K on Tuesday to cover Clarke County’s share of the debt service for the facility. Several supervisors criticized the informal nature of the regional jail’s budget communication process. In approving the additional funds the Supervisors also requested that the regional jail “formally inform the Clarke County Board of Supervisors in writing of its total budget commitment during the annual budget process” in the future.
The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office has received $40k in a federal Department of Homeland Security grant funding for laptops, phones and other emergency operations center equipment. The grant requires a dollar-per-dollar local match of either cash or “in-kind” contribution. The Sheriff’s Office has elected to provide installation services for the equipment which will be counted as its “in-kind” contribution.
A new horticulture agent hired by Frederick County will mean additional extension agent hours for Clarke County under a county resource sharing arrangement. The Clarke County Supervisors allocated an additional $1,835 to cover the Cooperative Extension budget shortfall.
Opus Oaks Art Grant
Opus Oaks, a Clarke County art school, provides an avenue for pre-school, school-age, and adults to learn and explore the world of art while developing their talent. A larger-than-expected matching grant from the Virginia Commission on the Arts to Opus Oaks prompted the Board of Supervisors to allocate an additional $3,000 in support of the program.