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Albemarle school division proposes scrapping raises to balance budget

A planned minimum wage increase and 3% raise for teachers is off the table along with several other changes proposed for next fiscal year because of budget cuts, but the Albemarle County School Board is pledging to provide wage increases if revenues improve.

“Our staff are doing an amazing job and we aren’t going to forget that,” said board member David Oberg. ‘We’re not going to forget that they deserve the money.”

The School Board has to cut $15 million from its $209 million funding request that it approved in February as local and state revenues continue to decline during the pandemic. On Thursday, division staff presented a plan to balance a revised spending plan and to hire some staff members to accommodate student enrollment growth, a key driver of the budget, in addition to staff compensation.

“Being on the School Board is the greatest thing you’ll ever do but sometimes it just sucks,” Oberg said. “This is one of those moments for me because we’re like, ‘wow, we finally turned to the corner.’ We were finally able to start doing the stuff that we want to do and then we’re hit with this again. It feels like we’re just kicked back to the starting line. … Obviously, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just frustrating.”

Board members had meetings with division staff in the last week to review the budget proposal.

The funding request that schools Superintendent Matt Haas presented in January was the first balanced spending plan in more than a decade.

“We were aided at that time largely by a really strong local economy, and a projected very strong state economy,” Haas said in an interview Thursday. “And now we’re back to square one.”

Albemarle County government officials outlined $59.7 million in reductions for next fiscal year earlier this week, and the local transfer to the school division is expected to drop by $10 million.

The School Board will hold a public hearing on the revised funding request May 7 and adopt a budget May 14.

“This is not something we panic about,” Haas said of the shortfall.

Using the current budget of $195.4 million as the starting point, the School Board needs to cut $1.8 million. From this year, division staff identified $1 million in cuts or savings related to non-discretionary and operational expenses, which leaves money available to spend $1.9 million on additional staffing.

The division has projected a 500-student increase from the current budget and planned to hire about 30 more classroom teachers. That number is now down to 15, according to the presentation. The growth budget item, totalling $1.9 million, includes money to hire five special education teachers and five bus drivers.

The division’s original funding request allocated $4.8 million to hiring staff to keep up with growth.

Haas said in an interview Thursday that retaining all current employees is a priority.

Community members agreed in a budget survey released last week. More than 3,300 people weighed in on the budget priorities. About 40% of those who took the survey were parents and 26% were students.

About 96% said student learning should be a top priority; 91% were in favor of preserving the jobs of current employees; and 87% were supporters of maintaining equity programs.

Haas said he’s planning to continue to implement the anti-racism policy and culturally responsive teaching certifications, among other equity efforts.

To keep current employees, Haas said division staff would look at staffing across the system and move teachers around, if necessary, to keep them from losing their job. So a county teacher might lose a position at one school because of enrollment changes, but Haas said they’re going to try to find another spot for them within the division.

Combined with the projected enrollment increase, these measures mean slight class size increases ranging from 0.4 to 0.6. The division’s average class size is smaller than the state’s recommended staffing ratios. This school year, the average elementary class was 19.6 students while the average middle and high schools class was 21.5.

“We don’t take this slight increase lightly and we hope to get it back down in the future,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, the division’s chief operating officer.

Class sizes in kindergarten to third grade would inch up by 0.4, on average, while all other classes would be increased by 0.6.

Gone from the original funding request are proposals to hire a counselor coordinator, expand a suspension intervention program and change the structure of the division’s after-school program to create more slots for low-income students.

Division staffers are proposing to cut department and school operational budgets by about 5%, which amounts to $800,000 in savings, and cut 15 full-time positions at the department level, which would be achieved by freezing current vacancies, Schmitt said.

Thursday’s presentation didn’t specify which department positions would be affected.

Additionally, no health insurance premium increases are proposed and a planned restructuring of the special education program is set to continue.

The division is expected to receive $1.2 million in federal stimulus money related to the pandemic; however, Schmitt said they don’t want to use that money to balance the budget. Rather, staff members want to put it toward programming to stem student learning losses because of the extended shutdown.

More than 80% of the division’s expenses are tied to personnel costs, and 65% goes to school-based compensation, according to Thursday’s presentation.

Haas said he was leery of cutting central office jobs more than other positions because of his experience with Recession-era budget cuts.

“We reduced support staff and central office staff too much,” he said, adding that those cuts hurt student learning. “… We weren’t providing the level of professional development and support that school leaders and teachers need to have really strong results.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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