County schools face budget cuts of up to $42.7 million in fiscal 2011

Thanks to falling state and local tax revenues and funding levels, Chesterfield County Public Schools could be forced to cut as much as $42.7 million from next year’s budget.

At a School Board work session on Jan. 12, T. David Myers, assistant superintendent for business and finance, said Gov. Bob McDonnell had indicated he wouldn’t change former Gov. Tim Kaine’s budget.

“If that’s true, then we have some good numbers to work with,” he said. “If that’s not true, then we still have governor’s adjustments ahead of us.”

The school system’s spending plan for the current year included nearly $33 million in budget reductions, he said, and Kaine’s proposed budget would reduce the schools’ revenue by another $11.5 million, bringing the total to $44.4 million for fiscal 2010. According to Myers’ presentation, the additional reductions will be absorbed by not filling vacant positions and limiting non-instructional expenditures.

Kaine’s budget for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 includes a 35 percent cut to what the state reimburses school systems for the money they pay for employee benefits. Essentially, the state will reimburse localities at a lower rate “because we’ll pay less for employees,” Myers said.

“Where did they get that from?” Bermuda District Member Marshall Trammell Jr. asked.

From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010 and, as proposed, to fiscal 2011, there is a sharp decline in the percent of local net property taxes that are used to fund schools, Myers said.

If the property tax revenue is a pie, he said, the pie will be smaller from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011. And, the school system’s share of the pie is proposed to shrink from 61.8 percent this fiscal year to 58.6 percent in fiscal 2011.

Most of the school system’s budget balancing issue will be caused by reduced revenue, rather than increased expenses, he said.

“At this moment … our anticipated budget adjustment required to balance next year is $42.7 million,” Myers said.

School officials have asked that the Board of Supervisors reallocate to the system the roughly $12 million it saved in the last two fiscal years, he said, and there will be an ongoing discussion about that.

A survey was sent out to school system employees, asking them to select from $62 million in potential cuts $40 million in cuts that would be acceptable to them.

Respondents could select cuts from three categories: staffing, programs – which included financial support for athletics and regional governor’s school programs – and compensation and benefits.

“This is unprecedented,” Superintendent Marcus Newsome said. “We have never given our employees this level of input before.”

If the school system has to cut $42 million next year, “the options that are available to us are not good ones,” Myers said. The potential exists for significant reductions in secondary course offerings, according to his presentation, which lists several foreign language, music, computer, and Advanced Placement courses among those that could be eliminated.

The cuts could be lessened if the state restored some of its funding, Myers said. Dale District Member David Wyman said he thought it was more likely that the budget gap would get wider than it was for state money to be restored.

There are potential options at the county level, Myers said, including having the county return the schools’ $12 million in accrued savings, fund schools at the current percent of tax collections and increasing the real estate tax rate to 99 cents per $100 of assessed value, making it revenue neutral for the county.

“There are options out there other than just cutting our salaries and positions and programs,” Myers said.

At the School Board’s regular meeting on Jan. 12, Wyman, after he was elected board chairman, said this year’s budget cuts would impact the classroom more directly.

 “We are heading into some uncharted waters for this school system and this county,” he said. The School Board recognizes it’s unreasonable to think local revenue increases will fill the gap, he said, but it would support measures to keep county revenues at the same level as the current year.

During that meeting, Myers said about 50 percent of the county’s teachers responded to the survey, and over 400 e-mails with other comments were received. Most of the respondents picked the pay reductions, retirement contribution reductions and staffing cuts as the least desirable ways to save money, he said.

Newsome said the survey was intended to educate the employees and show how difficult it can be to balance the budget. Many of the things in the survey listed as potential cuts are things “we have fought for,” he said.

Nearly 20 speakers, including several teachers, shared concerns about the survey and the budget during the meeting. As the community understands the magnitude of the budget problem, “we’re more likely to get the support,” said Frank Cardella, president of the Chesterfield Education Association.

In reference to the survey, he asked how a high school teacher can know what impact losing a reading specialist at an elementary school would have. Revenue enhancement options, which weren’t included in the survey, need to be on the table, he said.

He was not expecting to see his job listed among those that could be cut, he said, and “when you see your own job in writing, it becomes very real to you.” That’s part of why administrators got “pushback” from teachers on the survey, he said.

Judy Dorazio, an English and film teacher at Manchester High School, said all the teachers had heard was doom and gloom from everywhere and everyone. She said she had a “list of cans I would like to see you do,” including giving teachers back an unencumbered work day, allowing them to work at home on teacher work days if they choose and calling a halt on new projects.

“If you need to get back to the basics in the budget, maybe we need to get back to the basics in the classroom,” she said.

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