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HILLSVILLE — Having received a level funding request from the school system for fiscal year 2014-2015, Carroll County supervisors suggested that educators try to find efficiencies in their other major need — a capital improvement request for new buses.
Carroll Schools Superintendent Strader Blankenship could ask for level local funding in the $40.81 million operational budget because of a change in the composite index that will lead to more money coming from the state. The index is a formula the state uses to determine how much a locality can afford to pay for education.
The funding remains tight, though, leading school officials to put a request for five buses in the capital improvement projects budget instead of operations.
“If we have any increase in health insurance, energy costs or any other unexpected increases, we will have to ask for those next year with an increase in local funds,” the superintendent said.
Carroll schools have lost a significant amount of staff over the last few years due to budget matters.
“We evaluate every retirement or vacancy, and we determine whether or not we absolutely have to have that position before we fill it,” he explained. “We don’t automatically fill a position because it’s empty.”
Blankenship called this 2014-2015 request a “needs-based budget” and “the tightest budget” he’s ever been associated with.
“If we have unexpected costs, we may have to come back to you — that’s how tight this budget is,” he said.
Beyond the operations budget, the school system has a long-delayed need to buy new buses, Blankenship noted.
“We are in dire need of buses, and let me tell you why: we have 12 buses that are 18 years old; we have three buses that are 17 years old; we have 11 buses that are 16 years old; and seven buses that are 15,” he told the supervisors. “The state does not recommend that you use buses that are over 15 years old.”
The school system has 33 buses older than 15 years, in all, he added. In order to replace the fleet in a timely manner, the plan is to buy five new a year.
The superintendent indicated that the schools have 78 buses running routes, plus a few others that are being used for parts.
The last time Carroll bought buses it came through a federal loan at the Industrial Development Authority. In response to questions, Blankenship said there are four more years until the loan for the seven buses gets paid off.
The schools had been buying used buses for a while, until Virginia made a change.
“The state just recently came in and told bus companies that unless they would certify their buses that they could not sell us used buses,” Blankenship recalled. “Well, the companies will not certify their buses, so we can’t purchase used buses any more.”
Maintenance crews do an excellent job of keeping buses safe and on the road, said Supervisor Bob Martin, who’s also assistant principal at the high school. But he added that, one day, two buses wouldn’t start at the school, requiring attention of mechanics at the same time as another was being sent to Fancy Gap or Cana to take care of a bus problem there.
Carroll schools’ buses average just a little less than a million miles a year, Blankenship added. They get lots of use.
“We actually closed one day this year because we couldn’t get enough buses started that really cold morning,” the superintended recalled.
Buses usually cost $88,000, but Blankenship knew of an instance when Wytheville County sought bids and got theirs for $82,000 each.
Five buses would be more than $400,000, Supervisor Phil McCraw noted. “If we do that, it’s actually not level funding, so to speak.”
And this request comes at a time when the county has 40 years of paying for the recent heating and air conditioning upgrades at the high school.
Supervisor Sam Dickson, who also drives for the schools, felt he knew why the bus fleet has gotten old.
“I think where we’re at now on the buses is due to the fact that that’s the place that most times when we needed money to balance the budget, we left the buses off — sooner or later, you got to pay the piper,” he said.
When Roanoke County had a problem, they hired a consultant to look at the efficiency of their bus roads, Dickson said. Carroll hasn’t done that for years.
He noted that Carroll schools had a plan to pick up elementary, middle and high students on separate buses, and many of the routes overlap.
But that plan fell apart because parents didn’t want their youngest standing at the bus stop alone and asked the elementary students get picked up at the same time with the older ones.
Educators have not thought about hiring a consultant, but are considering a computer program to improve route efficiency, Blankenship reported, but Dickson wondered if there aren’t too many variables for that to work.
Every locality is looking for ways to save funds, the superintendent agreed.
Supervisors’ Chairman David Hutchins thanked Blankenship for the straight-forward and easy to follow budget presentation.
“Your budget is lean, I know it is,” the chairman said. “We are in the same situation.”
For every $200,000 in expense, that means another penny on the real estate tax levy. “You can’t do more than what you can do with what you have.”
Dickson added that he thought putting the buses in capital improvements was a great idea.