School officials keep close watch on budget cuts

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By Tom Wilmoth

With the announcement last week of an anticipated $1.4 billion revenue shortfall into Virginia coffers over the next two years, cuts are on the way and Bedford County Schools officials are watching closely.

The Bedford County School Board is set to vote on its proposed budget at its Feb. 28 meeting, but the shortfall could lead to a need for changes in the proposal even before the board is able to forward its budget on to the Bedford County Board of Supervisors for consideration.

"These are rough financial times, not only here in Bedford County but across the Commonwealth as well," stated Ryan Edwards, public relations coordinator with Bedford County Schools. "We're having to deal with this the best we can."

Some have estimated that the $220 million in cuts to public education funding proposed by Gov. Tim Kaine to help cover the shortfall could cost Bedford County schools some $2 million in lottery and school construction grants. Those are cuts not accounted for in the current school board budget proposal for 2008-2009.

Much of that money would be funds that normally go to fund school maintenance projects, about $1 million for each of the next two years. "This is not built into our budget this year," stated Randy Hagler, director of finance for the school system. "All the discussions at the state level will directly impact all the districts. ...We won't know the final outcome until the final version (is released)."

That's being hammered out now in the General Assembly.

Both the House and Senate have passed budget proposals with considerable differences in those plans.

In response to Governor Kaine?s proposal to address the $2 billion budget shortfall between fiscal years 2008 and 2010 including eliminating more than $220 million in dedicated General Fund support for local school divisions, House Republican members of the conference committee on the state budget expressed concern last week over what they called the negative impact by the governor?s proposed cuts.

Some committee members question Kaine?s spending priorities stating that he recommends further cuts to educational aid to localities while pushing for new spending items totaling more than $300 million.

?There is no doubt that Virginia?s current economic situation presents Governor Kaine and the legislature with difficult decisions on how best to allocate taxpayer funds,? noted Delegate Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. ?However, that is no excuse to decrease important funding for our local elementary and secondary schools. Should the governor?s recommended education cuts be implemented, the negative impact will be felt on school children across the Commonwealth.?

Hagler said the board and school administration has been conservative in putting together its proposed budget. He said it could take a week or more to see if adjustments need to be made.

The current budget proposal that will be considered by the school board on Feb. 28 calls for $5.98 million in additional spending over the current budget. The school board is seeking just over 8 percent more in revenue from the county ? some $2.98 million.

Much of the budget discussions have focused on increasing teacher salaries in the county to get those salaries in line with what other teachers in surrounding districts are paid. Included in the proposal this year is a 5.8 percent salary increase for teachers. Other school employees would get a 4 percent raise if the budget proposed is passed. According to a study conducted by school staff, Bedford County teachers are paid, on average, 5.3 percent less than teachers in surrounding counties. The goal would be to have larger increases than those districts the next three years to help close the gap. Many of the surrounding districts are planning on 4 percent raises in the upcoming year.

Also included in the budget proposal is a number of reductions in teaching positions at the elementary and middle school levels, along with a change to how increases in health insurance is handled.

Proposed staff cuts include elementary teaching positions and middle school teaching positions, two elementary assistant principal positions and four special education aide positions. Additional positions at the elementary and middle school levels are also being considered for reduction.

In the past, increases to health insurance costs have been paid by the school system, but a proposal this year would change that. Health insurance is expected to go up by $36 per month for a single individual plan and the proposal calls for half of that increase to be paid by the employee with the school system picking up the other half of the increase. Currently the school system pays all of the health insurance costs ($374 per month) for an employee's single plan.

Also included in this year's budget is a proposal to hire a testing coordinator for each county high school. That proposal was also included in last year's proposal but was later eliminated.