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School Board seeks additional funding for next year

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Budget request up to $5.6M

By Tom Wilmoth

    Because the Virginia General Assembly has yet to approve the final state budget for the next biennium, last Thursday’s School Board budget work session was short on details.
    But there was plenty of discussion.
    One sure consensus that emerged is the board’s hope that the Bedford County Board of Supervisors will ante up more local funding for schools in 2012-2013.
    Right now that increase request  stands   at  $5.6 million over last year’s local allocation. That includes $800,000 in extra funds to provide either a bonus or a raise for school employees as well as funding to keep salaries from being affected by an increase to employees’ required contribution to the Virginia Retirement System.
    Overall the proposed budget seeks $101 million in funding, including $42 million from the county. This year Bedford County contributed $36.3 million to the school system’s $96.5 million overall budget.
    Several school board members, however, don’t expect to receive the total amount of the additional funding request submitted to the supervisors. “My honest thoughts are this number is never going to fly,” District 6 board member Kelly Harmony stated.
    Eventually, the school division might not need that much, depending on what budget state legislators eventually approve.
    School Board members used the budget proposed by Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch as a starting point for last week’s discussion at the work session. Dr. Schuch’s budget includes funding the lease purchase of 13 new school buses for next year.
    But the largest increase in spending is expected to be in the area of benefits.
    That includes raising school employees salaries by 6 percent in order to cover the 5 percent increase the employees will have to pay in VRS contributions next year. The extra 1 percent covers the additional taxes the employees will have to pay on the salary increase.
    Dr. Schuch said he didn’t consider the 6 percent increase as a raise, noting that it simply allows the employees to take home the same amount of pay as they are this year because of the additional VRS expense they will face. But School Board Chairman Dave Vaden disagreed, stating that it was a raise for employees to help keep them even.
    “I’d characterize it as a hold-harmless (step),” Dr. Schuch said, adding he wouldn’t consider “it as a pay raise at all.”
    Additional spending on benefits are being proposed to cover an increase in healthcare costs. The exact figure wasn’t known Thursday because discussions with the county’s healthcare provider are ongoing. But at least a 7 percent increase is expected in those healthcare costs.
    The budget also includes funding to help keep class sizes smaller in grades K-3. “It just seems the right thing to do given the concerns we have heard,” Dr. Schuch said.
    The School Board has requested that the supervisors approve a $1.4 million budget transfer of funds left over from the Jefferson Forest High School renovation project into the school system’s maintenance project fund. This would allow the school system’s request to be lowered by $700,000 each of the next two years. But the supervisors have yet to act on that request, tabling the matter at a meeting last month.
    District 1 School Board member Richard Downey said a raise for school employees needed to be included in the budget “to show support for our teachers and employees,” noting that BCPS ranks 10th out of 11 in salary compensation for teachers among area school systems.
    A majority of members agreed, leading to the $800,000 addition to the budget request. The board would decide at a later date whether that increase would be given as a one-time bonus or as a raise. Vaden argued for a bonus so that future board’s wouldn’t be automatically strapped with the additional funding needs.
    “They would appreciate anything we can give them, I think,” Dr. Schuch said of the proposals.
    Harmony questioned whether the request for additional funds would be met with support from the supervisors. “I fear we’re setting ourselves up for the same thing that happened last year,” Harmony said of the budget process, in which the supervisors showed little willingness to give additional funds to the board.
    “I would hope that the Board of Supervisors would support our children as well,” stated District 5 board member Julie Bennington about the need for additional funds.
    The county did have $5 million left over from last year’s budget and the School Board is hoping the supervisors use that to help fund the additional budget needs.
    School Board members noted that Bedford County ranks next to last in the state in the amount of local funding spent per student for Virginia’s school systems.