County asserts control over school spending

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Instead of giving the school board the traditional lump sum of funding, Carroll supervisors want some say in education budgeting.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

 HILLSVILLE — Citing a need for efficiency and economy, Carroll County supervisors decided to categorically change how they fund the school system at their November meeting last Thursday.

Supervisor David Hutchins initiated the discussion about what process to use to fund the school system, and the other four board members present agreed to his motion. (Supervisors' Chairman Wes Hurst was away on business.)

Fresh off a Virginia Association of Counties gathering, Hutchins recalled that the attendees had heard about the tough financial year ahead.

Attendees received warnings not to look for a tremendous amount of funding assistance from the state next year, he said during supervisors' time. The budget picture seems somewhat bleak.

"With that in mind, it seems to me we're going to have to be ever mindful of every penny that we spend and how we spend it," Hutchins said. 

The supervisors don't want to see any tax increases over the next year. He wondered if county officials could not only look at their budget, but also at the spending plans of those departments the supervisors fund.

Supervisor Sam Dickson picked it up from there, noting the county board has funded the school system as well as it can, but maybe there are areas that need to    be worked on.

The supervisors have approved lump sum budgets in the past, but categorical budgets may help provide the county officials with a little more insight, he indicated. 

"That will kind of give us an idea about how much is in each category and then we can look at it and if we think it needs to be adjusted, we can...if it helps the school system" Dickson said. "Or at least have a better idea where their money is going."

The school board will need to start budgeting soon, so Hutchins wanted to give them a heads-up about the change in plenty of time. "I hate surprises," he said.

Hutchins made a motion to give the school board "advance notice" about providing a categorical budget as allowed by the code of Virginia. He added that the county officials ask the school board to make an expenditure report in January.

Supervisors Manus McMillian and Andy Jackson offered similar comments, stressing the need to help the school board and benefit the students, and the need to spend carefully in the struggling economy.

When Vice Chairman Tom Littrell, who presided over the meeting, called for the vote, the supervisors supported the motion unanimously.

Asked for comment by The Gazette on Friday, Carroll Schools Superintendent Greg Smith said categorical funding would draw out the process of getting the division's bills paid.

"When counties fund school boards categorically, that adds another bureaucratic tier to the process," he said. "If emergency expenditures were required, we would have to seek board of supervisors approval prior to that expense."

That would mean payments to vendors would take longer. Just reallocating funds from one part of the budget in case of unexpected expense would take longer to carry out, because the supervisors' approval would be needed for that.

There are always opportunities to improve the county's processes, Hutchins told The Gazette after the meeting. County boards and school boards in other localities cooperate to use categorical funding successfully.

The Carroll supervisors want to do everything they can to avoid tax increases, so they continue searching for ways to be more efficient, he said. "We're challenged with how to fund the schools and what we want to do is have a better understanding" of the processes.

"We are aware during a time of economic cuts, we're going to have to look at every budget closely," Dickson told The Gazette after the meeting.

Speakers at the VACO meeting noted there's no extra funding coming down the pike. "Senator Warner told us there was no more stimulus money left, so don't count on any, so we took it to heart."

The way Dickson understands it, the schools will provide figures for salaries, maintenance, transportation, food services, etc., under a categorical budget. 

"We know our budget is going to be tight and we're definitely not going to raise taxes, so if they need more money, where is it going to come from?" he said.

The supervisors didn't believe it would cause any more work for schools administration, and that it may help uncover educational needs.

Smith said the school board and the county board have been working hand-in-hand to weather the financial crises caused by the poor economy in the last few years. He said that will not change.

"It has always been the board's intent to work in a positive manner with the board of supervisors and we will continue to do so," Smith said. "Without knowing the motivation for this action, if categorical funding is implemented it will not change the relationship with the board of supervisors, and we will continue to work for the good of the children of Carroll County.”