Thomas: More school personnel cuts likely

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Just one week after Grayson County school administrators proposed 56 personnel reductions, leaders said additional job losses are likely forthcoming.

Grayson Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Thomas updated the school board briefly during a second budget work session Monday night.

Thomas said concrete numbers from the state have yet to be provided, but both the state House and Senate budgets approved last week include "drastic cuts" that "will have a negative impact on education of Grayson County students."

Last week, Thomas and Finance Director Julie Bear delivered the agonizing news that the school system would likely be forced to reduce 56 positions and cut roughly 6 percent from all school employees' pay — those numbers are based on former Governor Tim Kaine's proposed budget, and would equate to a roughly 15 percent decrease in personnel.

As Thomas told the board, however, both versions of the state budget include additional cuts not found in Kaine's proposal.

Two glaring differences between the two budgets are that the House proposed an additional $731 million in permanent cuts to K-12 education over the next biennium.

Thomas said the House budget would eliminate state funding for the secondary planning period from the Standards of Quality and block-granting, as well as reduce funding for a number of stand-alone incentive programs, including those for at-risk students and pre-schoolers.

The Senate's budget proposes additional cuts of $133 million, but includes language expressing the intent of the reductions are to be temporary until the economy recovers.

Reductions from local and state funding aren't the only hindrances on the Grayson school system. Bear said that revenue projections are beginning to come in and she is finding that, in most cases, the revenue will be reduced in some federal categories.

"We will need to cut some more out of expenditures," she said. "Likely a couple hundred thousand dollars."

Those thousands of dollars are likely to increase the total number of positions reduced.

"Unfortunately, losing some federal monies will lead to further loss in positions for the county," Thomas said.

School administration has began looking into the budget to find additional places that money can be cut as they wait to see what the final numbers will be once the state's budget is approved later this month.

"We are identifying some alternate cuts," she told the board. "That will be very difficult... we've slashed this budget and the cuts and personnel reductions are extensive."

Board Member Gary Burris questioned if all other counties in Virginia were in the same position as Grayson.

Thomas explained that it varied from county to county, but that Grayson is suffering because of a drop in enrollment and total number of facilities the school system is operating.

The school system continues to see losses in student enrollment. Earlier this year, Thomas told the board that the school system was losing an average 10 students per month.

Burris expressed that many of those students leaving are probably due to job losses in the county and families being forced to relocate for employment.

As for the number of facilities, Thomas again explained that a school system the size of Grayson County (roughly 2,000 students) typically runs on three schools. Grayson operates nine.

The school system is banking on closing two facilities at the end of this year. Grayson Highlands will combine Mount Rogers and Bridle Creek, while renovations at Fries Middle School will allow it to add students from Providence Elementary.

Grayson Highlands' building is nearly complete, but delays in sewer, water and turning lanes continue to hamper the progress in the western end of the county.

Weather has also delayed progress at Fries Middle School and it is unknown whether the renovations and additions will be ready for the 2010-11 school year.

"We desperately need those schools combined next year," Thomas said. "If we are unable to combine them, we will have to go back to the drawing board and have more drastic cuts."

Some of the personnel cuts included in the first set of numbers include positions lost through the combining of the schools.

"We are going to start hurting the kids bad," Burris said of all the proposed reductions in personnel.

"We already are," replied Thomas, who noted that the cuts would mean dropping various programs on all levels. "Our students in Grayson County will not have the same opportunity next year as they have this year and in the past," Thomas said.

To which Burris replied: "Shame on us."

Bear said more concrete numbers could be available by the school board's next regular meeting on Monday night, though they would simply be the two extremes.

Likely, the final budget approved will fall somewhere between the two proposals, leaving school administration guessing what additional amounts they will need to reduce.

With the General Assembly set to end its session March 13, it could be another two weeks before final numbers are known.

For now, Thomas said she and her staff will continue to seek places where additional money can be cut when it becomes necessary.

"It's an extremely bad situation for us," she concluded.

• The school board will meet during its regular scheduled session on Monday night at 6 p.m. in the board room of the courthouse in Independence.