WINCHESTER — With the coronavirus pandemic sending the economy into free fall, the Frederick County Board of Supervisors is considering giving $2.8 million less to the school division.
The money is part of a $4.8 million anticipated revenue increase in the current fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, and was to be split between the county and Frederick County Public Schools. The schools were slated to get $2.8 million as part of $88.3 million from the county for the 2020-21 fiscal year. However, Supervisor Blaine Dunn asked supervisors at their monthly meeting on Wednesday to withhold the money until January, when the county may have a clearer picture of how much less revenue is coming in. The board delayed a vote on the proposal to its next meeting on June 10.
Dunn noted meal and retail sales tax revenue is plunging, and some homeowners may be unable to pay their real estate taxes. Multiple establishments have gone out of businesses, while others remain partially closed as a result of the pandemic. Since mid-March, about 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment including 500,000 Virginians.
“If we do have the money, then we can go with the budget that’s listed, but I’m not confident that we have,” said Dunn, who represents the Red Bud District. “As a financial planner, I’d be very hesitant to go and make a promise for something I can’t keep.”
Even if the money is withheld, the county’s new elementary school — Jordan Springs Elementary in Stephenson — “can and should open” for the upcoming school year, Dunn said in a statement in support of his proposal that was part of Wednesday night’s meeting agenda packet.
The school division needs about $2.8 million to staff the new school and pay for other expenses to get it up and running.
Dunn, who has previously questioned the school division’s financial transparency, said the division is slated to get an additional $3.9 million in state money for the upcoming fiscal year. However, division spokesman Steve Edwards said on Thursday the additional state money isn’t guaranteed because of the pandemic.
On May 19, Patty Camery, school finance director, said the pandemic may cause the school division to lose about $2 million in state money this fiscal year. But because schools were ordered by the governor to close from mid-March until the end of the academic year, the division has been able to save about $1 million in expenses such as utility bills and fuel.
Deferred maintenance, delaying capital improvements, not filling vacant positions — the division currently has 91 vacancies — and layoffs are all traditional options to address shortfalls for cash-strapped school divisions. But Edwards said it’s premature to say what the division will do if it gets less money. He said the priority would be limiting the impact on the division’s nearly 14,000 students and approximately 2,200 staff.
“Anything in the budget could be looked at,” he said. “It would be extremely challenging and very difficult decisions for our board.”