Big-ticket projects driving $21 million in IWCS budget requests

Published 1:40 pm Monday, March 4, 2024

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A bus garage renovation, new school buses and athletic facility upgrades are among several large one-time expenses driving $21 million in requests for budget increases across Isle of Wight County Schools’ departments.

Superintendent Theo Cramer presented 68 pages of budget requests to the School Board on Feb. 22. Now comes the hard part: deciding what makes it into the board’s proposed 2024-25 school year budget.

“We recognize that not everything can or will be funded – certainly not in one year,” said School Board Chairman Jason Maresh.

The School Board, last March, adopted an $88.1 million budget for the current school year that included a $30 million contribution from county supervisors, who as the school division’s local funding authority control the amount of local dollars the division receives.

The $30 million given last year amounts to roughly 32% of the county’s $95.5 million current-year budget. Four years ago, county supervisors had contributed $27.5 million, or 35%, of their then-$79 million 2019-20 budget.

Cramer, at the Feb. 22 meeting, called it “critically important” that the county restore its pre-pandemic practice of contributing at least 35% of its budget to education now that the last of the millions of dollars IWCS received from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, federal pandemic relief money will expire this September.

A 35% share of next year’s county budget would amount to a roughly $3.4 million increase in education funding if the county’s budget stayed flat, and won’t cover everything requested.

The School Board has tentatively scheduled a public hearing on Cramer’s budget requests for March 7, and plans to vote on its budget request March 14. Once the School Board votes, the request will head to county supervisors for a final decision.

“It is incumbent upon the School Board to establish funding priorities and present the Board of Supervisors with realistic requests,” Maresh said. “This is no easy task and it requires significant consideration. To be fair, the Board of Supervisors will have the most difficult task of having to determine ‘how’ to fund the schools’ requests. As such, we hope and plan to work alongside the Board of Supervisors in this effort.”

New personnel costs

Cramer’s budget requests call for a $5.6 million increase in personnel expenses. Just over half is tied to raises connected with the division’s 35-step pay scale and the 3% annual salary increases for teachers and other school employees proposed in competing House of Delegates and state Senate versions of Virginia’s 2024-26 biennial budget bill. Cramer has also requested at least 24 new positions, including a grant writer, accountant and director of student services at the division’s central office.

Last year, IWCS added two deans of students, one at each high school, to free up principals from having to spend most of their time addressing student discipline. According to Deputy Superintendent Susan Goetz, when principals or administrators suspend a student for 10 days with a recommendation for long-term suspension, parents have the right to request a hearing at the division’s central office.

The new director role, which IWCS used to have but eliminated nine years ago, would free up Director of Elementary Education Tracy Stith-Johnson, who has been acting as the division’s hearing officer, Goetz said.

The personnel-related expenses also include the cost of hiring instructors for new patient care technician and criminal justice career and technical education programs, $300,000 for referral and signing bonuses, and absorbing a $500,000 increase in the cost of employee health insurance.

One-time expenses

One-time expenses totaling $14.4 million account for two-thirds of the $21 million in budget requests.

Cramer has requested $750,000 to renovate the division’s existing circa-1955 bus garage, which division officials say isn’t large enough to accommodate Isle of Wight’s newest 77-passenger school buses. Talks of replacing the outdated building have been ongoing since 2004. Division officials, last September, estimated building a new garage from the ground up could cost $7.5 million to $10 million.

A third of the division’s 65 buses have also reached the 15-year lifespan and 300,000-mile limit Virginia Department of Education guidelines specify. Cramer is proposing to buy 20 new buses at an estimated $2.9 million cost.

Also on Cramer’s wishlist is up to $820,000 for resurfacing the tracks around the football fields at each high school. According to Cramer, outdoor home track meets have been canceled for the entirety of the 2024 season due to the tracks’ deteriorating condition.

The largest one-time expense, at $7.3 million, calls for replacing Carrollton Elementary’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, which is original to the circa-1993 school and has seen costly malfunctions over the past several years. In 2022, the division spent a $1 million HVAC grant funded through ESSER to replace leaky pipes, only to have fluctuating indoor temperatures persist the following school year.

Division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs said some of the one-time expenses could end up funded in the county’s capital improvements program rather than as items in the division’s operating budget.

Vape and weapon detectors

Cramer’s requests further call for the installation of weapon detectors at middle and high schools, and vape detectors that would be placed in high school bathrooms. The devices would carry a collective cost of just over $231,000.

 Last year, the School Board was shown a presentation by Evolv Technology, a manufacturer of two-lane rapid detection systems that, according to the company, can screen up to 3,600 entrants per hour and use artificial intelligence to distinguish weapons and explosives from everyday metallic objects. Vape detectors, according to the websites for multiple manufacturers, detect the chemicals emitted by “vape pens,” a type of electronic cigarette that aerosolizes a liquid that delivers nicotine, marijuana or other drugs.

Smithfield High School Principal Patricia Cuffee said more than half of all student suspensions are tied to vape pens, which are illegal under federal law in the hands of anyone under age 21.

Windsor High School Principal Dawn Carroll said bathrooms are typically where students are caught vaping, though it’s “hit and miss.”

“There’s more out there than what we’re able to locate so it’s difficult to actually zero in on exactly who has them,” Carroll said.

For every vape offense, a student receives five days out-of-school suspension, and 10 days if the vape is found to be laced with THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. According to Jason Brinkley, the division’s security and emergency management specialist, THC offenses, in addition to triggering a student’s suspension, are also brought to the sheriff’s deputy serving as the school resource officer for referral to the criminal justice system. A first offense, Brinkley said, typically goes to the court’s diversion program, where the charges are dropped after a period of probation.

Because of the potential for a student to incur a criminal record, School Board member John Collick said he wasn’t in favor of the vape detectors.

“I am a proponent of deterrence, always, not catching kids in the act,” Collick said.

Cramer and Maresh, however, each said they believed the devices would serve as deterrents.

“In the very near future I’m going to have a little girl who’s going to be going to Windsor High School and if she comes home and tells me that she’s afraid to go to the restroom because she doesn’t want to get in trouble because some punks are in there smoking THC, dad’s going to have a problem,” Maresh said.