Charlottesville city councilors aren’t sure if they will be able to fund the city school system at the same level as this current fiscal year, given expected revenue shortfalls.
The City Council and the School Board reviewed the school division’s preliminary funding request during an annual joint meeting Thursday. The division’s funding request relies heavily on federal funds and doesn’t require additional money from the city.
The budget process is just beginning, and councilors will hear more about the city budget in a work session Wednesday. Meanwhile, schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins will present her funding request to the School Board on Feb. 4, and the board is expected to vote on it Feb. 18.
The school division is seeking $58.7 million from the council, which would be the same amount provided for this fiscal year. Local funding makes up about 66% of the division’s $88.9 million operating budget.
City budget officials told the council earlier this month that they expect to bring in $9.9 million less in revenues through the end of January. Much of that decrease stems from a drop in meals and lodging tax revenues.
“Obviously, we’re just in a time where the needs are only growing,” Councilor Heather Hill said at Thursday’s meeting. “Unfortunately, our revenues are not. They’re doing the opposite. … We’re fortunate that there are some dollars available [from] CARES because if we didn’t have those funds, where would that leave us right now? I can’t even imagine putting my head around that.”
Atkins highlighted the use of one-time federal CARES Act money in the school division funding request, which includes $3.2 million in new spending. Much of that would go toward a 2% raise for staff members and line-items aimed at helping students to recover academically and socially-emotionally from the pandemic.
The division has received $5.3 million from the CARES Act, which includes a recent infusion of $4.48 million that has to be spent by Sept. 30, 2023. The funding request leaves about $2 million left for the division to use in future fiscal years.
“So this proposed budget leverages one-time, non-recurring CARES funds to address the most pressing needs now while still trying to build as much runway as we can for the city to recover revenues,” said Kim Powell, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.
During the work session, city councilors sought to clarify funding expectations for the next couple of fiscal years and how the use of one-time funding in the proposed request would affect future funding requests from the School Board.
“We all want the kids to have what they need, but even some of the items here we’re not even sure yet what we’ll be able to do with city staff,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said.
Atkins said she anticipates that the division would ask the City Council to fund half of the proposed expenses in fiscal year 2023 and then the other half in 2024, which would mean $3.2 million more than what the city currently has appropriated.
“Also add to that, we don’t have any visibility right now to what additional costs may be in the FY 23 budget,” she said. “Surely, we’ll have salary increases and we’ll surely have contract increases. … And, in all likelihood, there will be additional requests made in the FY 23 budget.”
Hill asked about the proposed line items and how many would be needed after the pandemic ends.
“It seems like, as you were talking through [the list], I was getting the impression that most of these things are things that the school system would want to continue, with exception to … things that are very specific to COVID,” she said.
Atkins said that was correct.
“I was trying to wrap my head around what we might be expecting in the next couple of years, and to think [how] our budget is going to be impacting [by COVID] the next couple of years,” Councilor Sena Magill said. “Just trying to balance that and trying to think forward what commitments we will have to maintain, so it’s a lot right now.”
City councilors and School Board members also briefly discussed the proposed reconfiguration project, which has been in limbo since the pandemic began in March. The project would move sixth grade to Buford Middle School, fifth grade back to the elementary schools and convert Walker Upper Elementary into an early childhood center.
City staff have put in $50 million as a placeholder amount in the city’s proposed capital improvement program. Two years ago, the city provided $3 million for planning and design of the project, a first step to determining just how much it would cost.
“I think that we should wrap our head around the fact that $50 million is probably not going to be sufficient,” Walker said.
The city issued the request for proposals in December 2019 and started negotiating the contract in February. Acting City Manager John Blair said Thursday that he wasn’t sure if a contract with a design firm has been executed.