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Charlottesville City Hall, School Board face $2M spending gap

Charlottesville has one month to finalize a proposed $251 million budget, and teachers are pleading with the city to allocate $2 million more to the school system.

A budget proposal adopted by the Charlottesville School Board for the upcoming fiscal year asks for $76 million.

City Manager Sam Sanders’ proposal, which will have to be approved by City Council, would provide the division with $74 million. It would be a $7 million increase from last year, but less than the $9 million increase sought by the school system.

And that $9 million is less than the $12 million that Superintendent Royal Gurley originally wanted for his schools.

The school board adopted the $9 million budget increase in early February, and now teachers and some community members are trying to convince Council to somehow find a way to meet their request.

But it won’t be easy. While Sanders’ proposed budget — his first since being named city manager last year — is balanced, it also asks for tax increases. If councilors are going to give the school division the additional $2 million it desires, they may have to raise taxes beyond what Sanders proposed or take money away from another item on the budget.

Charlottesville’s teachers want Council to figure it out.

“We already cut down to fewer dollars than what our schools actually need,” Dave Koenig, a teacher at Lugo-McGinness Academy, said at a Council meeting Tuesday.

Koenig and other teachers who spoke during public comment said that although budget conversations can be mundane, the numbers have real consequences for Charlottesville’s schoolchildren. He asked Council to demonstrate that the city is committed to education by putting more money into schools.

“Those things that we prioritize, those things that we value, will be fully funded. Those things that we do not value will be given short shrift,” Koenig said.

Council had three top funding priorities that Sanders had to account for: collective bargaining for the new teacher union, employee compensation and investment in schools.

“This is what you have prioritized,” Sanders told Council, based on a strategic five-year plan the body created last year. “It’s important for us to never lose sight of that as we do the work for the city; we’re doing it with this in mind. These are the guardrails that you have set for us.”

There were “substantive investments” in each of Council’s priority areas, made possible by an expected 10% increase in revenue. That’s $23 million, the majority of which is projected to come from real estate assessment increases and a strong performance from sales, meals and lodging taxes as well as earnings on interest.

But a portion of it, $6.2 million, would come from the proposed tax increases: the meals tax increasing from 6.5% to 7.5%, the lodging tax from 8% to 9%, and the property tax rate from $0.96 per $100 of assessed value to $0.98 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Any local tax increase would have to first be approved by the General Assembly, which could prove difficult.

“Raising taxes is never easy and never taken lightly,” Sanders said, noting that he redirected $2.5 million directly from departmental budgets and another $2 million from proposed vacancy savings. “It was important to me to demonstrate a willingness to share in the challenges of this budget cycle.”

One way the upcoming budget could bring additional money for the school district is through help from the commonwealth. The General Assembly is under pressure from Virginia localities to fill a funding gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charlottesville has lost $3 million in state revenue due to how Virginia calculates its funding: by looking at recent enrollment data. Current funding has been determined by looking at 2021 enrollment numbers. That’s a problem for Charlottesville and other localities, which have seen increases in enrollment since the pandemic ended. While the school system isn’t back up to pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, it’s close and has a couple hundred more students than it did in 2021. So the commonwealth is sending enough money to account for that 2021 enrollment level, but not enough to meet the recent jump in student population.

“Our enrollment is rising. Our funding is decreasing,” Gurley told Council.

Council and the school board will be hoping the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin can come to an agreement to bring in more money. But there’s no guarantee they will, or that an agreement would come before early April, when the city is required to finalize its budget.

If the money doesn’t come, the financial burden will fall upon local taxpayers.

“My hope is we can get a firm number out of the state which should hopefully add more money to the budget and hopefully reduce need from the city. But we can’t’ plan for that. We have to plan for the worst-case scenario,” Chris Meyer, who sits on the school board, told The Daily Progress.

The school division’s proposed budget aims to bring more support to both teachers and students.

That includes $2 million for school-based programs, such as site-based substitutes: full-time substitute teachers that are assigned to a school for an entire year, assisting teachers throughout the school and available to fill in if one is absent.

“The feedback we continue to hear is to keep our teachers in the profession, they need to be able to do their job, and thus the importance of having the site-based substitutes,” Gurley said.

It also includes continued funding for Knight School, an alternative night school program introduced at Charlottesville High School in late 2023 that the school division has said is seeing good results.

“We have already started to see the return on academic investment for Knight School,” Gurley said. “We’re providing our students an alternative way to learn and be successful. They’re thriving, they’re showing up, and so our commitment there is an increase of $218,000.”

Shannon Gillikin, president of the Charlottesville teacher union, said she worries the program dedicated to helping high school students could be terminated.

“We’re starting to see a return on investment, and it’s a hugely creative effort by those teachers, and it’d be a shame to see that disappear after just a year of doing it,” Gillikin said.

One clear difference in recent years at the division is an influx in students who don’t speak English. In the spring of 2021, the division had 455 students who speak English as a second language, or ESL students. Last fall, the number rose to 700. This winter, it is expected to rise to 747.

“A big reason we had the jump is we had change in national leadership, which means a change in policy which means more refugees,” said Gillikin, who teaches kindergarten at Jackson-Via.

Twelve of her 23 students last year spoke a different language at home. But not just one language. Between those 12 students, there were six different native languages.

Instructing students who are still learning English requires not just general education teachers but also ESL instructors.

“We really appreciate all the new immigrants and refugees that have been entering the system, but they are not just served by one teacher. They need another to teach them English,” said Meyer.

Gurley is calling for a 2-for-1 ration, requiring two staffers for every student.

“If we continue on this trajectory, then when I stand her next school year, we will have a student enrollment that will have more than 800 requiring English language learning services. That means over 20% of our population will need those services in some form,” he said.

Meyer noted that 54% of the student body is low-income, and as the city has committed to building more affordable housing, it means more students moving to Charlottesville.

“We all have said countless times we value affordable housing, we understand the importance of affordable housing. I just think that somewhere in the big picture we’ve forgotten what the affordable housing does in terms of student enrollment,” he said. “When I stand here next year, the student enrollment in this specific area is going to trend up.”

Council will have to consider many options if it wants to close the $2 million funding gap, and can likely expect increased pressure from teachers and other advocates.

“If property taxes need to be raised, please raise them,” Koenig said. “My wife and I are both teachers. We’re not wealthy, but we’re doing OK and I’d be happy to pay a little bit more to see our schools and our children get what they need.”

Michael Salvatierra, a teacher at Trailblazers Elementary, formerly Venable, also pleaded with the body to find a way to bring more money into the school system.

“We have seen the biggest way that we can support all of our kids is to attract, mentor, retain, compensate and reward good teachers,” he said. “It’s not about just leaning on the goodwill of teachers, it’s about actually listening to the teachers that are in the classroom every day with the kids. So when we say we need more staffing, we need more funding, we need more support, please listen to us.”


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