Schools may face more cuts in FY 2012

Along with a preview of next year’s budget, School Board members got insight last week into how the roughly $54 million cut from this year’s budget impacted schools, students and teachers.

At the start of the board’s Sept. 28 work session, T. David Myers, assistant superintendent for business and finance, said officials hoped to provide an overview of the budget process and the information that goes into developing the spending plan. Residents typically don’t see the hundreds and hundreds of budgets that go into the final budget, he said.

Though it’s what officials and residents tend to focus on, the operating fund isn’t the only element of the budget, Myers said. The budget also includes Capital Improvement Program (CIP) funds, grant funds, school food service funds and school activity funds, he said.

Officials have the greatest flexibility in the operating fund, as the other four types of funds are all generated for a specific purpose, he said. Though last year’s total budget was $602 million, Matoaca School Board Member Omarh Rajah said, there are “some things we can’t touch.” Really, the $517 million in the operating budget is “the amount of money we have to use,” he said.

A total of 76 school budget presentations were made across the county last year, Myers said, and this year’s budget development calendar allows for the same public process.

The school system cut about $54 million from its budget for fiscal 2011, Myers said. Manchester High School Principal Peter Koste and Wells Elementary School Principal Virginia Patterson shared their insights into how the cuts were directly affecting schools.

Class sizes have increased in many courses, Koste said. High schools typically lost between 3.5 and 5.5 teachers, he said, and “that’s 20 classes that we had to cut out of our master schedule.” The reduction in staffing led to reduced scheduling flexibility, he said, as fewer class sections were offered and some classes maxed out.

“Some courses just weren’t offered this year,” Koste said, especially some of the end-of-sequence courses. One high school principal “said he/she had to cut two AP [Advanced Placement] classes.” At some schools, level three, four and five language classes have been combined, he said.

Since the transportation budget was cut, some schools are looking for new ways to transport athletes to and from games, he said. Principals are also concerned about “the fact that there may be fewer resources when trying to meet the need for remedial instruction,” he said

The long-term effects of the budget cuts are unknown, but they’ll likely be minimal if the cuts are in effect for a year or so, Koste said. But, if they continue, teachers and administrators will be asked to take on more and more responsibility, he said, because the community’s standards won’t change.

“If you look at this for two, three, four and five years, then you’re looking at teacher burnout,” he said.

Patterson said her school had several reading teachers last year, but had since lost them, and the differentiated learning opportunities they provided, to budget cuts. The school also lost two of its five instructional assistants, she said.

The pupil-teacher ratio has increased by one, from 24:1 to 25:1, she said, but that doesn’t mean the size of every class increased by one student. The increase hits fourth and fifth grade classes harder, she said, and at some schools there are 30 or 31 students in fourth and fifth grade classes, she said.

Next year, Myers said, officials expect a roughly $27 million budget gap.

“We still see budget reductions on the horizon,” he said. Along with a $12 million hole that was filled last year with one-time funding, the school system is facing a projected drop in local revenues and an increase in health and retirement expenses, he said.

If the school system saves the $12 million it will soon receive in federal jobs bill funds for next year, and uses the roughly $9.5 million in local savings projected for the current fiscal year, about $5.6 million would remain to be cut next year, Myers said.

Midlothian School Board Member Patricia Carpenter asked whether the jobs bill money could “disappear” if the school system didn’t spend it this year. Myers said the state could reduce the system’s funding because the school system is getting the federal money, which would effectively eliminate the $12 million.

“They’ve done it before,” he said.

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