No jokes about what the schools are facing

Botetourt County, Virginia School Superintendent Dr. Tony Brads asked for a joke at the end of last Thursday’s first school budget public input session. He wanted to lighten the mood, but no one offered one.

In fact, his request left the room silent because the news for Botetourt County schools was grim—and he had been the messenger.

Think $5 million, because that’s how much money Botetourt schools have lost or are losing in state support this fiscal year and next.

This year, the school division has been able to absorb a $2.4 million loss of state funds without affecting classroom size and programs—thanks to federal stimulus dollars.

But the next fiscal year that begins July 1 will be a different story, and that’s what Brads told those at the budget input session at James River High School, and what was expected at last night’s session at Read Mountain Middle School and again next week at Central Academy Middle School.

There wasn’t much “public input” at the session at JRHS—no band parents asking for more funds, no plea to keep art in the elementary schools, no request for raises from teachers, no fourth and fifth grade parents asking for more teachers to reduce class sizes.

Instead, the hour-long meeting was more of a chance for the school administration and School Board members to tell the public about the dilemma they face—how to cut $2.4 million (that’s just in state dollars) from what they consider an already lean school budget.

“We’ve got to cut expenses by $2.4 million without hurting the children, staff or our facilities,” Brads said, “…so we have to get more money from somewhere or do the obvious, curb our expenses.”

The $2.4 million cut in state support for Botetourt schools is what is proposed in Gov. Tim Kaine’s proposed 2010-11 state budget. That could change depending on what Bob McDonnell proposes when he takes office this weekend, or what the General Assembly finally does.

But, it’s a starting point and the $2.4 million represents about 10 percent of the state funding the county received this year.

The school division hopes to maintain level funding from the county.

The three areas Kaine proposes cutting aid to counties are particularly bothersome to Brads.

Kaine has proposed putting a cap on funding for support staff because “someone thinks we have too many staff,” Brads said.

In Botetourt’s case, that’s not true, Fincastle District School Board representative Jack Leffel said. He said Botetourt schools have a trim administration and cutting into the support staff will only put more of burden on the remaining staff. “We’re being penalized for having done the right thing (with staff),” Leffel said. School divisions that do have bloated administrations will be able to absorb the hits they take in this area.

“We have so many staff members wearing so many different hats, it’s amazing,” Brads said.

Brads said the Kaine budget would reduce support for employee health insurance by $700,000. The county’s premiums this year are $3.3 million and the state is picking up $1.9 million of that. The state support would be cut to $1.2 million.

Brads said the Kaine budget also proposes eliminating $350,000-$400,000 in Public School Authority funding for technology. The county provides a local match for those dollars, and that money is used to keep the school division abreast of advances in technology.

“If we’re preparing our kids for the 21st century and cutting technology—that’s straight at the kids—there’s no rhyme or reason for that,” Brads said.

Besides the state cuts, the school division also faces increased expenses for employee retirement. That amount isn’t firm yet, because the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) has established what the county’s rate will be.

“The vast majority of what we get to operate the schools comes from the T word—taxes,” Brads said. “…. Are people willing to pay for schools, fire and rescue, public safety?”

Those latter areas also are facing the state budget ax.

Buchanan District Board of Supervisors member Terry Austin was at the meeting and noted that every area of county government will be affected—from the Sheriff’s Department to the Treasurer’s Office. He suggested the General Assembly give counties the same taxing authority as cities have. Cities can levy taxes on cigarettes and higher meals and motel taxes. “We have the same expenses as (cities),” he said.

Sam Foster, who works closely on the budget for the school division, said “everything’s on the table” as the school administration begins work on next year’s budget—personnel, capital projects and programs.

Buchanan District School Board member Kathy Sullivan called the proposal to cut state funding for schools “tragic.”

“We want to provide a quality education,” she said, noting that the county school division has developed a reputation for quality education. “All of a sudden, we’ve got to step back and say, ‘What can’t we do? Art, music, everything?’ There’s nothing I can tell you that we could do without.”

Brads said as the school division wrestles with putting together a budget, “The board will direct us to do things that impact the students the least, and that may mean something different depending on where you are.”

The discussion prompted Leffel to ask, “If you cut 50 or 60 staff, what’s going to happen in the classroom?”

He went on to lament that School Board members are not going to be popular in April when the school budget has to be finalized. “It’s not us or (Austin and the Board of Supervisors), it’s the state and feds.

Austin said the fiscal problems the school division and county face aren’t all related to the economy. “It’s the way we govern in Richmond,” he said.

Brads added that schools get hit every year with new initiatives or ideas that come out of Richmond, but no new funding. As an example, he pointed to the seventh grade career plan that’s now required. “It’s something else for us to do, but there’s no money for it.

And, the school division is absorbing a cut it didn’t expect in the current fiscal year, Brads said. The state has taken away funding that is used for the adoption of new textbooks and put it into “basic aid” to balance that part of the state budget.

The next school budget public input meeting is Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Central Academy Middle School at 7 p.m.

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