Despite citizens’ claims that proposed county funding would not sufficiently meet the needs of Essex County Public Schools (ECPS), the board of supervisors proceeded with adopting a budget of $38,860,115 for fiscal year 2013-2014 last Tuesday.
On May 14, the board allocated $6,468,013 to the operating budget for ECPS and $7,725,000 to the construction fund for school facilities.
The county’s contribution included an additional $252,705 to fund an increase in salary and health benefits for all school employees.
It was a decision that Interim Superintendent Dr. Gail Pope called “conscientious” and greatly appreciated on behalf of the school board.
Pope did note, however, that even with the additional funding from the county, the school division still faced a monetary shortfall of approximately $172,000 in the operating budget compared to fiscal year 2012-2013.
Pope said the decrease was due to a drop in Average Daily Membership and a loss of one-time federal funds.
In order to accommodate the cuts in funding, the school board authorized Pope to activate their reduction-in-force policy, thus eliminating 3.5 fulltime equivalent teaching positions that the one-time funds supported.
Pope also said that three paraprofessional positions would be cut from Tappahannock Elementary School based on a reduction in service needs, while noting there are more budget-cutting measures to come.
Earlier in the year, Pope had presented a needs-based budget to supervisors identifying $1,258,178 in needs that included building maintenance, vehicle replacements, new textbooks and additional SMART Board technology.
Citizens who spoke on the issue of school funding during the meeting were critical of the board’s measures.
Essex County resident John Clickener argued they were still underfunding the school function and, therefore, putting the children in Essex County at risk.
Central Dist. School Board Member Elizabeth Martin said the supervisors’ decision sent a “powerfully negative message” to employers who were interested in the economic development of the region.
“I can assure you…the number-one reason I have for physicians not choosing to come to this community and live and work here is the school system,” said Martin, who is also the administrator at Riverside Tappahannock Hospital.
“When I speak with them about coming and relocating here…they will see the level of support that we are getting,” said Martin.
But Greater Tappahannock Dist. Supervisor and Chairman Stanley Langford implored that the board was “trying to do the right thing” with the budget.
“It’s like your payroll at home: you have so much going in and so much going out,” said Langford. “We’re doing everything humanly possible to try and make ends meet.
“The board’s always said, ‘If you really get jammed up, come back to us,’” Langford added. “If you’ve been vigilant with your funds, then we’ll come back and look at that.”
Central Dist. Supervisor Bud Smith said he would have rather that Pope impressed the budget shortfalls upon the board instead of “looking for SMART Boards and $343,000 worth of capital improvements” with the needs-based budget.
“I’m just getting tired of getting beat up by the citizens about the budget when we didn’t get a budget. We got an opinion list,” said Smith, who added that the county was already spending $20 million on the school function.
“If you worked out $20 million in your hard cost per student, I think you’ll find we spend a whole lot more money than anybody else in the area for our students,” said Smith.
Northern Dist. Supervisor Jack Stevens said: “If you look back to the last 20 years, it has been done before [where] school system has come back in the middle of the year and said, ‘We need extra dollars,’ and we have given it to them.”
Southern Dist. Supervisor Prue Davis said she was looking forward to a better working situation with the schools for fiscal year 2014, as well as making changes to the budget as the year progressed.
“I want to adopt this budget as it is, but it’s not set in stone,” said Davis.
In related news, Commissioner of the Revenue Thomas Blackwell shared with the board that the county would realize $600,807.91 if the forest and open space categories were eliminated from Land Use.
Langford requested that Blackwell work with Reese Peck within the next 60 days to determine the impact of Land Use and conservation easements on the county’s composite index (CI).
According to Peck and Blackwell, the CI dictates a locality’s ability to pay educational costs.
“For future years, we need to come up with some way to come up with extra funds, other than [to] keep raising real estate taxes,” said Langford. “I feel our job is to look at every nook and cranny to find every dollar that we can, and manage those dollars in the appropriate way.
“I’m not against supporting our farmers, but we have come to the dividing line,” said Langford, who added that the $600,000 deferred in forest and open space acreage was five cents in real estate tax, and totaled half of what the school board originally requested.
“And yet, the economy of Essex County depends on agriculture and forestry,” Davis replied.
Smith said he did not envision cutting half or all of the land use categories “at this time.”
“We put this in effect to keep Essex County rural,” said Smith. “I think it’s an excellent tool, it’s done its job [and] I’m not interested in changing this right now.”