Funding outlook bleak in Clarke

Posted: March 7, 2013

The Winchester Star

BERRYVILLE — Comments from the Clarke County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night didn’t give School Board members much hope that they will get the extra $1.2 million they are seeking for fiscal year 2014.

After a 90-minute presentation by school officials on their $27.1 million budget proposal, Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Hobert told the School Board that “we do feel we understand your challenges, but we’re limited in what we can do.”

The supervisors have said they don’t want to raise taxes to fund the next budget.

The extra funds would be used by the school division, in part, to hire additional staff and give all school employees a 3 percent pay hike — which, in turn, would force the county to give its employees a similar raise.

About $438,000 is needed to fund the pay hike. And nearly $378,000 is needed to add six full-time and two part-time school system employees. Also, among other things, health care costs are going up 7 percent.

Hobert, however, said the money just isn’t there.

“We hope you feel the gratitude,” he told school personnel about their dedication, but when it comes to more money, “I’m sorry to be pessimistic.”

Hobert said the state’s proposed offer to supplement part of any 2 percent teacher pay raise given by localities next year isn’t much help.

And Finance Director Thomas Judge pointed out that the $86,000 the state would give to increase local school system salaries “is a small fraction of what will be necessary.”

What’s more, Judge said, Virginia would not make its contribution available until August, and then would only contribute to the salary increase if there is enough money left in the state’s coffers to cover the expense at the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

That leaves the School Board in a difficult position, Judge said, because it must tender contracts to its teachers in May for the following school year.

If the state falls short of its promise, or backs out entirely after June 30, the increased salaries would fall back completely on local funding.

Clarke teachers got a 2 percent pay rise in the current fiscal budget, and county officials were hopeful that might qualify the school system for the incentive the state is offering this year, but that fell on deaf ears, Hobert said.

He added that the federal spending reductions from the sequester — $85 billion in automatic cuts for FY2013 kicked in March 1 — could hit Virginia particularly hard.

“This could be the beginning of a very challenging time,” Hobert said.

Not being able to get the extra $1.2 million in funding will present the school system with a number of challenges.

Assistant Superintendent Rick Catlett said one of the new positions the school system needs is mandated by the state’s Standards of Quality.

The other new positions include a math teacher to help improve student scores in that area and a high school science teacher.

Supervisor Barbara Byrd, a former teacher, said she agrees with the need for the science and math help, and additional help for kindergarten students.

School Superintendent Michael Murphy told the supervisors that many young students are entering school without any experience in preschool.

That may be because of the economy, he said.

“Parents don’t have the money” to send their children to pre-kindergarten classes, he said. As a result, the children arrive at kindergarten and first grade “not prepared to learn.”

And that means extra costs for the school system.

Another area where more help is needed is special education, Murphy said.

While the school system’s enrollment has remained at about 2,040, the number of students with special needs is increasing. And those students need extra help, he said.

The supervisors will continue their budget deliberations at 5:30 p.m. today.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com