Stimulus money to take sting out of school cuts

Published 8:25 am Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The state General Assembly passed a two-year $77 billion budget on Saturday, becoming the first state to incorporate its share of a $787 billion stimulus package from the federal government.

Virginia will use almost $1.5 billion in stimulus money to stave off — for now — cuts to, among other things, K-12 education and constitutional officers.

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said it will be several weeks before the county knows exactly how much money it will receive from the state, but the early reports are encouraging.

“Based on preliminary numbers that we’re seeing, I think the federal stimulus funding will probably add about $1.1 million, in round numbers, to the school budget,” Johnson said.

The current version of Southampton County Public Schools’ proposed operating budget for the 2009-10 school year contains cuts of more than $1.8 million compared with this year’s budget. The school board is poised to request a total of $25.76 million from the county’s Board of Supervisors.

“So the $1.8 million cut they were looking at, it appears the federal stimulus may absorb about $1.1 million of that,” Johnson said.

A public hearing on the proposed operating budget is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Wigwam cafeteria inside the Southampton High School Technical Career Center. The meeting was previously scheduled for this past Monday but was postponed because of winter weather.

Johnson said the county’s constitutional officers — specifically the sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney, clerk of the court, treasurer, and commissioner of the revenue — should also benefit from the stimulus funds.

“I don’t have any hard numbers, but based on what I’m hearing, the budget fully restores all of the reductions that we were looking at there,” he said.

According to Johnson, the county was looking at “across-the board reductions” for those offices. The cuts ranged from 5 percent to 10 percent.

“But it’s my understanding that they have all been restored,” he said.

Despite the added funds, Johnson cautioned that the county still faces difficult decisions.

“It is good news,” he said about the stimulus funds. “ Now the bad news is the stimulus funding is one-time funding. So we’re right back in the same situation next year, and we know that.”

Douglas Boyce, president of Paul D. Camp Community College, said that the General Assembly budget session produced some good news for his school as well. The budget bill that was passed allocates $126 million to help stave off tough decisions by local colleges.

Boyce said PDCCC was spared a $300,000 cut that would have had significant impact on a school that was already in need of more funding for new teachers and resources to keep up with growing enrollment.

“We were already looking at cuts of around $600,000 before Kaine’s December announcement that would have resulted in nearly $300,000 more cuts, adding up to almost one million dollars. That type of loss would have been significant for our already small budget,” Boyce said.

However, Boyce added that while the funding from the stabilization funds would help with the coming year’s budget woes, he was still instructed to be cautious with the funds during a phone call with community college presidents statewide.

“Certainly we are grateful for the funds, but we have been cautioned not to spend as if the problem is solved completely,” Boyce said. “This is just a short-term solution.”

Boyce said the college will still use fiscal constraint when making budgeting decisions.

“We are taking steps to be more flexible and trying to position ourselves to be prepared for future shortfalls,” he said.

Franklin School Board Chairman Bill Scarboro said he thought it was still too soon to make a determination about how the funding would affect city schools.

“We are supposed to get information on our funding Friday. But, I think it is too early to say what that number will turn out to be,” he said.

Scarboro said school officials would likely sit down sometime next week to discuss next steps after they have a firm grasp on what the numbers would look like.

The Isle of Wight School Board will hold a public hearing on its next operating budget at 5 p.m. on March 12.