With the fate of a bill to help Charlottesville increase the local sales tax to pay for school construction projects up in the air, the city School Board is planning to spend $20,000 to hire a lobbying firm for the rest of the legislative session.
The board’s decision comes after a House subcommittee killed three bills regarding the local sale taxes option. Under one of the proposed bills, Charlottesville would receive authorization from the General Assembly to ask voter via a referendum for approval to increase the local sales tax by up to 1%.
Another bill would’ve given that authority to all localities in the state. Currently, nine localities in Virginia have received similar authorization from the General Assembly to issue a referendum since Halifax County proposed the idea in 2019.
The House subcommittee did not discuss the motion to lay three bills involving the sales tax on the table before voting 5 to 3 to do so.
“That generated some disappointment and cause for concern,” said Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations. “Because this is a really important funding source that needs to be brought to the citizens of Charlottesville for a decision.”
Two Senate Bills — one specific to Charlottesville and one involving the statewide option — cleared the state Senate early last week, meaning the overall effort isn’t dead.
The School Board signed off on a plan to hire The Commonwealth Strategy Group, which is based in Richmond.
“The goal is to help move the conversation from a partisan conversation to a bipartisan consideration,” Powell said.
The group has advised the school division to focus on passing Senate Bill 298, which is sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, Powell said. That’s the Charlottesville-specific legislation.
The sales tax increase is expected to bring in $12 million a year, city officials have said. That additional funding would support the renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School, which is part of the first phase of the school division’s reconfiguration project. The city has included $75 million for the project in its five-year capital improvement program.
The School Board received the latest schematic designs for the project during Thursday’s meeting.
Without the sales tax, city officials have said they would have to raise the real estate tax rate by 10 cents, which would pay for reconfiguration as well as the other projects in the CIP. However, city councilors expressed skepticism about the project during a joint meeting Wednesday.
Later in the meeting, schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. presented his $106.9 million operating budget for fiscal year 2023. That amount includes $23 million in special revenue, which includes grants and millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds.
The budget is largely unchanged from what was presented to the School Board last month, though officials have removed the full-time theater teaching position at Buford Middle School.
Overall, the spending plan would give all staff a 5% raise and reduce the reliance on one-time federal funds through $1.4 million in cost and staffing reductions, including 15 instructional according to the presentation.
No current employees are expected to lose their jobs, though, as the staff cuts would be done through attrition.
The school division is requesting $4.2 million from the city for its budget, which has $3.54 million in net expenses compared to the current operating budget. That $4.2 million includes the $3.3 million the school system would receive via an allocation formula with the city.
Under that formula, which is not a formal policy, the school division receives 40% of new real estate revenue, though the city has historically provided more than that.
That request was not discussed at length during Wednesday’s joint meeting between City Council and the School Board. City Council held a budget work session Thursday night as well.
For the current fiscal year, the school system received $58.7 million from the city, which hasn’t changed in the last two years. That local money makes up the bulk of the division’s operating budget.
“It is the local appropriation that determines what can and cannot happen in the school division,” Powell said.
The School Board will vote on the budget later this month before presenting the request to City Council in March.
Board members were supportive of the budget in comments made after the presentation.
“This is a very modest ask,” board member Jennifer McKeever said, adding that it supports staff in the middle of a pandemic and a time of inflation. “We are the experts on this budget. Operationally, you have done a phenomenal job to do what we asked you to do.”