County may not increase school funding

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By John Barnhart

With Bedford County Public Schools looking at as much as a $5.8 million decrease in state and federal funding next year, school officials have been stating they plan to ask the Bedford County Board of Supervisors for additional funds to help make up the difference.

    “We’re going to need our county to step up with local funding,” Dr. Douglas Schuch, Bedford County’s superintendent of schools, said during a school board meeting last month.
    Calls made to members of the Bedford County Board of Supervisors, Monday, indicate that may not happen.
    “I don’t know where it will come from,” commented District 3 Supervisor Roger Cheek, when asked about it during a phone interview.
    Cheek said that a lot of small businesses in the county are just making payroll. Cheek owns a body shop and he mentioned something that a paint company representative said to him recently.
    “Your shop is lucky to have the business it does,” the representative said. “Lots of others laid off [employees].”
    “I know lots of people who are carpenters and they can’t find a job anywhere,” Cheek said.
    Cheek said this is not a good time to ask for more money.
    “You are asking me to raise taxes on people who are not doing well to give some people a raise,” Cheek said.
    Cheek also noted that the  supervisors  don’t  yet  know what decisions will come out of the General Assembly. He mentioned state and federal mandates on local governments.
    “Every time they stop funding something, they expect the locals to make it up,” he said.
    “You can ask for anything you want, but it’s not going to happen — the money isn’t there,” said District 1 Supervisor Dale Wheeler.
    Wheeler said that he will be happy to sit and listen to a presentation from the school board, but said that they will have to live within the confines of people’s pocketbooks.
    “People are just hanging on right now,” Wheeler said.
    Wheeler said that he’s not willing to raise taxes on people who are already hurting.
    “We just can’t make up what the state has cut,” said Board Chairman Annie Pollard. “We can’t raise the real estate tax to make up the difference.”
    Pollard termed the real estate tax “the most unfair tax there is.”
    “I’m not willing to tax people out of their homes,” she said.
    She said that developing a budget this year is going to be a challenge and noted that the school division isn’t the only funding demand that the supervisors will face as they do this.
    “It’s not a realistic thing to do, ask for more money, because it’s not there,” she said.
    Like Cheek, Pollard also cited state and federal mandates that are not adequately funded.
    “They need to let go of some of those mandates,” Pollard said.
    “My concern is that I don’t fully understand yet what the state is going to do to us,” said District 2 Supervisor Chuck Neudofer.
    One of Neudorfer’s concerns is that the state will mandate that localities require employees to pay a 5 percent employee contribution to the Virginia Retirement System. He doesn’t like the idea of taking this out of pay that has already been frozen.
    Neudorfer said that he would like to help the schools, but said that he must look at the entire county budget. He hopes that the county will be able to craft a budget without raising real estate tax rates above what it will take to equalize taxes in the wake of the recent reassessment.
    “It’s going to be another tough year,” he said.
    Like Pollard, Neudorfer said that it won’t be practical to make up, with local taxes, all of what the state is cutting from school funding. He said that he will have a better idea of how revenue is holding up and what the state will do when the supervisors begin working on the budget at their regular meeting on Feb. 14.
    “If it involves raising taxes, the answer is clearly no,” said District 5 Supervisor Steve Arrington.
    Arrington said that the economy is tough and businesses are hurting.
    “It’s unconscionable to talk about a tax increase,” he said.
    “The school board is just one of many people who need money,” commented District 7 supervisor Gary Lowry.
    Lowry said that the supervisors will need to look at all who get funding from the county, noting that the pie they have to divvy up is getting smaller.
    He said that he will need to know what the state will do, and what funding requests the supervisors will have to deal with in order to make a decision.
    According to County Administrator Kathleen Guzi, the supervisors will get local revenue projections at their Feb. 14 meeting. Guzi doesn’t expect any significant increases in local revenue.
    “Overall, we’re holding our own,” she said.    
    The supervisors will also receive county staff’s best estimate on what the General Assembly will do at the upcoming meeting. Guzi emphasized that these will be estimates as no specifics will be available that early.
    Guzi is sure, however, that what comes out of Richmond will end up being a loss to localities, something that has been happening for some time.
    One example are excess fees generated by the circuit clerk’s office. In the past, this money was turned over to localities, which used it to help fund that office. Now, the state keeps that money.
    Another is the line of duty death benefit, payable to law enforcement and emergency service personnel killed in the line of duty. The state formerly picked up the cost of this mandated benefit.
    “It’s a wonderful benefit,” Guzi said “But now the General Assembly decided that they can’t afford to pay for it. Now, we have to pay for it.”
    The state has also cut what it will pay for services mandated under the Comprehensive Services Act for At-Risk Youth and Families (CSA). Localities are still required to provide these services for troubled youth, but the state picks up less of the tab.
    “Those items continue to add up,” she said.
    The potential for a large cut in the amount of state funding for the school division would dump a huge problem in Bedford County’s lap.
    “If the General Assembly passes the education portions of the governor’s budget, it will have a significant negative impact on Bedford County’s school system,” Guzi said.
    Guzi said that representatives from the school system will be invited to a budget work session to discuss the school budget with the supervisors. She said that a firm date has not yet been set up, but she said that the goal is for this to happen this month. The school budget is the biggest item in the county’s budget, so it would be best for this to happen early, she said. Last year, the county provided more than $36 million of the school system’s budget.
    The supervisors have regular meetings, preceded by 5 p.m. budget work sessions scheduled for Feb. 14 and Feb. 28. They have a 5 p.m. work session scheduled for Feb. 22.
    Tax rates are the supervisors’ responsibility to set, but Guzi said state law requires the county to publish, following a reassessment, the tax rate that would generate the same amount of money as the current rate, prior to the reassessment. She estimates that this would require a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax rate. Guzi noted that an equalized tax rate does not mean that everybody would end up paying the same amount of tax. Some people saw their property values rise and an equalized tax rate would amount to a tax hike for them.
    “Right now, everything is approximate,” she cautioned.