Lack of state numbers hinders work on school budget

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By Tom Wilmoth

    The school budget will take center stage Thursday for the Bedford County School Board, but there may end up being more questions than answers as Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch makes his formal presentation to the board.
    When the budget calendar was originally adopted, the hope was that the General Assembly would have already adopted—or at least had a general agreement—of its funding of education for the next biennium by mid-March. But that’s not the case, leaving local school boards and governments without any firm numbers to plan with for the upcoming year.
    “I feel an obligation to present something on Thursday,” Dr. Schuch said last week about the board meeting March 15. At that time he held out hope that the General Assembly would still pass a budget over the weekend. But that didn’t happen.
    “I do feel like the board and the community needs to hear something,” he said.     In fact, after officially ending its session Saturday without a new state budget, a special session was formally started Saturday to deal with that issue. But then the session was adjourned until March 21.
    Dr. Schuch said that means his presentation Thursday will have caveats and asterisks attached because of a lack of direction on state funding.
    The board is slated to begin budget work sessions next Thursday, March 22, to begin discussions on Dr. Schuch’s proposal.
     The competing House and Senate budget bills make fundamental changes to funding of the Virginia Retirement System. Depending on what’s adopted, Dr. Schuch said those changes have the potential to “dramatically” change the school budget as well as impact all school employees.
    He said Thursday’s presentation to the board will be based upon what the best thought is as to where the state’s budget is headed.
    “I’m not sure on what details we will give yet,” he said. “I couldn’t even tell you at this point which way we would go. … We’ll present the most up-to-date (information) we have.”
    Then the board will have to decide how to proceed after that.
    The goal is to have the school budget locked down by the end of this month, but Dr. Schuch said that isn’t practical if the state hasn’t finished its budget by then.
    “It is frustrating,” he said.
    But, he added, it will be worth that if, in the end, it means more money for the schools.
    “I’m certainly hoping they are doing something to work for us,” he said.
    Dr. Schuch said other factors that will play into the final numbers of the school budget include the health insurance costs.
    As for VRS, he said it’s important to keep that fund solvent and he’s sure, whatever the eventual decision, the costs to the school system will go up significantly.
    “I’m still holding out hope that the state will come through for us,” he said.
    The school board will also be working with the county on funding issues. The county has stated it plans to fund the school system at the same level as last year, but it does have funds left over from last year that could potentially be used. In addition, the county has tabled a request from the school board to transfer $1.4 million of unused funds from the Jefferson Forest High School renovation project to the maintenance fund for next year.
    Dr. Schuch said that request was an attempt to proactively address and draw down the total amount the school board will seek to receive in county funding.
    “That will totally be their call,” he said.