Preparing lean budgets

Published 10:12 am Saturday, February 13, 2010

FRANKLIN—Still facing uncertainties with local and state funding, public school officials are busy preparing lean budgets for the next school year.

Franklin City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle met with the city School Board Thursday to discuss the upcoming budget. School officials estimate a decrease in funding from the state of approximately $1.1 million, or 13.6 percent.

Nearly 80 percent of the division’s budget supports personnel costs. Belle said the district is not considering raises and expects double-digit percentage increases in health insurance costs. Payments to the Virginia Retirement System are also expected to increase.

“These might be two areas where our employees will have to absorb additional costs,” she said. “I don’t see how we, as a division, will absorb these increases.”

Budgetary concerns may force the school division to increase class sizes. The state’s standards of quality mandate certain staffing levels in public schools; positions not required under the standards of quality will be closely scrutinized, according to school officials.

School Board member Will Councill said that class sizes should only be increased if it’s “absolutely” necessary.

“We’ve worked so hard to get our schools accredited, and it would be a shame to go back to struggling,” he said.

Belle said that the proposed budget would include a “modified” school calendar that would include 180 instructional days, including summer school. The modified calendar and closing school facilities during holidays and breaks would create savings in energy costs for the school system.

She said the hope is that the city will “level fund” the district the same $4.8 million that it provided this year.

Belle is expected to present the proposed budget to the School Board in March.

Public schools in Isle of Wight and Southampton counties are also facing deep cuts in state funding. Like Franklin, both school systems are anticipating cuts of more than $1 million dollars each.

If the local composite index, which is a measure of a locality’s ability to fund its schools, were frozen this year, it would mean a slightly less bleak budget outlook for local schools. However, Gov. Bob McDonnell said that he supports going ahead with the regularly scheduled update this year—a move that isn’t sitting well with some school officials.

Superintendents from 14 school districts across Hampton Roads joined to send a statement to the region’s state senators and delegates asking them to contest updating the index.

According to the statement, school districts in Hampton Roads stand to collectively lose more than $58 million in state funding, while about 30 districts, primarily in Northern Virginia stand to gain $128 million.

If implemented, the updated index would cost the state $29 million more than it currently spends on school funding.

“We simply cannot understand the wisdom of implementing such a recommendation when it will result in an additional $29 million cost to the commonwealth,” the statement reads.

The decision on whether or not to freeze the index is ultimately up to the General Assembly.