Grayson supervisors study school requests

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Grayson's school needs are on the rise, while the county's ability to pay decreases each year.

By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Grayson County supervisors got their first look at the school board’s proposed budget for next year and questioned a few of the cuts the school division used to make ends meet.
Supervisors held a joint meeting with the school board on March 14 and were presented with a request to “support the children of Grayson County” and approve the $21.3 million budget — which includes just over $4.6 million funding from the county.
While minimum funding required this year to receive maximum state dollars is only $4.46 million, the school board has requested an additional $50,731 to fund a principal position and another $136,300 to give all employees a 1 percent pay raise — their first  salary increase in four years.
School Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas went over the critical needs of the school division and made note of the “budget crisis” the school system has been in over the last few years.
Thomas said that crisis was having a “tremendous impact” on what the division is able to provide its students. She finds it discouraging that money is being cut to public education despite the fact that the state is projecting revenue growth during the next two years.
Thomas told the board that the local composite index — a state formula that defines the ability of a locality to pay for education — had increased from .3178 to .3385. This means that Grayson should be able to spend more on schools.
In terms of dollars, this amounts to a $223,626 increase in the amount the county will have to pay just to meet the Local Required Effort.
“Grayson’s composite index is higher than any surrounding county,” Thomas told the boards.
Supervisor Mike Maynard questioned what the lag time was on the composite index, which is based largely on property values in the county.
The school division’s Finance Director Julie Bear said it was two to three years. In other words, the composite index was based on 2009 or 2010 property values.
So, even if property values have gone down or continue to go down, it will take time for the composite index to catch up.
Thomas noted that if the county had not been frugal with the Education Jobs Bill money over the last couple of years, Grayson would be facing a nearly $1 million shortfall.
“We will not have that money after this year,” Thomas said of the federal funds that must be spent by September 2012.
Other mid-year reductions in Title Funding ($94,214), Learn and Serve ($23,100) and Special Education ($10,334) were example of how the county has consistently lost money from the federal government and grant funding.
The county also expects to see declines in 2012-13 in federal programs including Virginia Healthy Youth ($68,100), Gear Up ($24,685) and a School Improvement Fund ($81,300).
Coupled with a 24 percent cut in state funding since the 2008-09 school year and an additional $3.6 million in state dollar cuts projected for next year, it’s clear the school system’s biggest challenge is funding.
Thomas showed pictures of outdated school books, crumbling bleachers at the high school, old plumbing and electrical work throughout the county and parking lots that are falling apart and flooded with water. These examples reveal the dire need to give the county’s facilities a facelift, she said.
Money simply hasn’t been there in recent years to do necessary upgrades or maintenance and the county continues to fall behind.
“We have already cut over 30 teaching and support positions” over the last three years, Thomas said.
Things such as professional development have been cut to a minimum and no buses have been purchased even though a majority of the school system’s buses are over the state recommended age limit.
Elementary art, which Thomas said helps foster creativity and innovation, has also been cut from the school system.
“One of the things that has made the United States strong in competing [globally] is that our people have always been creative and innovative,” Thomas told the board. “The very thing that has made us successful in the world… we’re not offering it in our schools anymore.”
Thomas added that the county continues to fall behind in technology, as well.
While other schools are offering iPads and laptops to their students to learn on, Grayson continues to work with textbooks that are falling apart and severely outdated.
Cuts to next year’s budget include another teacher position, a bus driver and three aides.
Additionally the school system plans to stop operating the 6:30 activity bus routes — something which caught the ire of the supervisors.
“I have a vested interest here,” said Chairman David Sexton of the activity bus route. Sexton represents the Providence District, which relies heavily on the activity bus to transport students who participate in after-school programs back to the Fries area.
Thomas said the county will save $46,700 by getting rid of the route.
Sexton said he saw a lot of cuts that directly affect the children and wondered if any additional cuts to administration were considered.
Thomas said that, since the budget crisis began, she has removed three central office positions and merged several others.
“We’ve cut as much as we possibly can out of central office,” she said. “Almost everyone [in administration] has two jobs, rather than one. We simply can’t function with another cut in central office.”
Thomas added that many of the salaries in central office are funded through federal funding and/or grants.
School Board Member Wynn Combs agreed and expressed that one of the main directives Dr. Thomas was given when she was hired was to restructure that office — and she has been successful.
“It has been cut to the point where they can’t handle any more cuts,” Combs said.
Getting back on the topic of the activity bus, Supervisor John Brewer didn’t like the cut, either.
“That’s tough that children on the eastern and western ends of the county won’t be afforded that opportunity,” Brewer said, calling it a “serious” cut.
“All of our cuts are pretty serious,” Thomas responded.
They may be, Brewer continued, “but they’re equal. This is more of a discriminatory cut because of their location. If you cut art, then every kid loses art, but if you cut the activity bus only those kids [in outlying areas] are going to be hurt.”
Thomas noted that if the board of supervisors were willing, they could provide extra money to keep the activity bus operating.
Moving on to the school division’s request for an additional $50,730 to keep a principal at every school, Thomas said it was critically important to do so.
There are some serious concerns with not having an administrator at each school full time, she continued. “Schools are different than they used to be,” Thomas told the board. “We’ve got different social issues,” as well as safety issues.
“I think my board was more concerned about the safety issues than anything else,” she said before speaking briefly about the recent shooting at a school in a small town similar to Grayson County in Ohio.
“We’re very concerned about the safety of not having an administrator at every school,” Thomas added.
The other request above minimum funding was $136,300 to give all contracted employees a 1 percent pay raise.
“Our board is extremely concerned about our employees not having a raise in four years,” Thomas told the supervisors. “They’re taking home less money with increased insurance costs over time and we’re losing people. People are looking at other jobs in other divisions.”
Thomas added that Grayson is the lowest-paid division in most categories and continues to struggle to keep employees.
“Our people work hard… we have excellent school employees and they do deserve something,” Thomas said.
The total request puts the county on the hook for an additional $410,656 over last year’s funding level.
While the employees may not have received a raise, Maynard pointed out that the employees did receive a 2 percent one-time bonus and $500 insurance stipend at the end of last school year.
One of the issues that continues to plague the school system is a loss of enrollment.
As the student level decreases, the state drops its funding.
Maynard wondered if the school system had developed a long-term strategy to deal with losing students.
Thomas noted that it would have helped if the supervisors had followed through with the facilities improvement plan. The county operates seven schools, but the plan would have consolidated that down to five — a much more manageable number.
Based on enrollment, the state says the county should only have three schools, but because of geography that’s simply impossible.
With the recent economic conditions, people continue to move away from the county and those moving in tend to be retirees who have no children.
Increases in free and reduced lunch are evidence of that trend as well, as more and more people are struggling to find work.
Brewer agreed, but noted that it was a double-edged sword. “We want to fund education all we can, but the only way we can is to hit those same people that have had layoffs and such… it’s a trap.”
Maynard then noted that the potential for the long-delayed state prison opening could have a positive effect on enrollment. If there are more jobs, people are likely to stay or move into Grayson.
Maynard then suggested the board reach out to other localities that have had prisons open recently and see how it affected enrollment in the school system.
Thomas said that February was the first time since she had been in Grayson that the county saw an increase in enrollment. This, she said, could be a result of the new furniture jobs in Galax.
“We need any help that you can give us,” Thomas concluded. “If you have something you’d like to fund specifically, I’m sure our board would take it.”
County Administrator Jonathan Sweet made note of the trends over the last few years.
While state funding goes down, the county’s funding requirement goes up and overall operating budget goes down.
So, while the school system is operating on less money, it’s taking more and more from Grayson County to fund it.
That, he said, is part of what makes it so tough to provide more than minimum funding each year.
Supervisors have tentatively planned a public hearing on the school board’s budget for its next regular meeting on April 12.
The board will plan to make a decision on the budget at its budget work session on April 25 at the latest.