Budget may force school to close

Published 9:03 am Friday, January 29, 2010

WINDSOR—Closing Windsor Middle School and cutting dozens of positions are among the proposals Isle of Wight County Public Schools officials are mulling as the division faces millions of dollars in funding reductions.

“We’re going to have some serious decisions that we’re going to have to take a look at as we develop this new budget,” said Superintendent Michael McPherson.

The school division is anticipating a general fund shortfall of at least $2.45 million next year because of state budget cuts and increasing costs to continue existing services.

“You’re not going to hear a lot of good things,” School Board Chairman David Goodrich warned at a School Board work session Wednesday night at Windsor Elementary School.

Closing Windsor Middle School could save the division more than $900,000 next year in maintenance, utilities and staff costs. McPherson said if the proposal is approved, sixth-grade students would remain in elementary schools and seventh- and eighth-grade students would be sent to Windsor High.

Katherine Goff, spokeswoman for the school division, said Windsor Middle School’s closure is under consideration because of the anticipated budget deficit “coupled with (a building) replacement not being in the foreseeable future and the escalating costs of maintaining that building.”

In addition to closing Windsor Middle School, officials also are recommending other cuts, including replacing in-school suspension with after-school detention, delaying adoption of new elementary social studies textbooks and eliminating several library clerks. The school division could shed the equivalent of 24 full-time positions if all of the recommended cuts are approved.

“These are just items that are under consideration,” Goff said.

The $2.45 million in recommended cuts doesn’t take into account possible cuts in funding from the county. Steve Jenkins, the division’s chief of operations, said the county administrator has directed department heads to prepare three budgets — one with no increase, one with a 5-percent reduction and one with a 7-percent reduction.

“In the best situation, I would say we would be flat funded by the county, but I don’t know that that is the case,” Jenkins said. School officials say they could lose an additional $1.47 million in funding from the county.

Among the additional items under consideration if the county reduces funding to the school system are the elimination of the division’s preschool program, the elimination of lead teachers, increased class sizes and the institution of fees for non-core programs and athletic participation.

If all of the additional cuts are implemented, the division could shed nearly 60 additional positions.

“If the county reduces funding, we’re going to have to reach into the classroom,” Goff said.

One possible silver lining for the school system is that Gov. Bob McDonnell is considering freezing the state composite index for fiscal year 2011. If the General Assembly agrees to freeze the index, it could restore almost $800,000 in state funding to the division.

School officials stressed that the proposed budget cuts are preliminary at this point.

“This is our starting point,” McPherson said. “This is not the budget.”

School officials considered and rejected another set of proposals, which included closing New Directions Alternative Center, reducing staff salaries by 5 percent and reducing counseling services to students.

“We were trying to think of everything that we could to put out there and consider when we were starting to work on our budget for next year,” McPherson said.

Goodrich said the public input would be weighed heavily during the budget cycle this year.

“Nothing is written in stone,” he said.

Goff agreed that the budget process is far from complete.

“This could get worse, or it could get better,” she said. “There are a lot of unknowns, both with the state and the county.”