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Charlottesville school division to ease reliance on one-time federal funds

The Charlottesville school division is seeking to wean itself off an infusion of one-time federal money that it used to pay for raises, 17 new full-time positions, and other investments aimed at helping students recover from the ongoing pandemic.

An initial draft of the division’s fiscal year 2023 spending plan would rely on about $2.18 million of that federal stimulus money — down from $4.6 million allocated in the current operating budget.

The school division wants to use that money plus an increase in state and local revenue to give its employees an average 5% raise, cover cost increases with recurring contracts, make the theater teacher at Buford Middle School a full-time position and sustain several new positions that were funded in the current fiscal year.

The division has received $15.7 million in federal stimulus funds since the start of the pandemic, which must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.

Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said this is a key budget cycle for using the federal funds.

“It’s our last full budget year to sort this out,” Powell said. “You only have one more shot.”

Transitioning away from the federal money and implementing the long-awaited reconfiguration project to put the middle grades under one roof are priorities for the board. The topics will dominate budget discussions, as has already been the case. The division has received $15.7 million in federal stimulus funds since the start of the pandemic, which must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.

This budget cycle will be the first for schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. who started in the position in early October.

Despite the pay raise and stimulus funds, the division is looking at nearly $1 million in cuts. That includes the reduction of 15 full-time instructional assistant positions, which would occur via attrition. No current employees would lose their job, according to the presentation. Specifics regarding the personnel changes affecting 17 full-time changes would be discussed in closed session, Gurley said.

The division has 82 instructional assistants in its general fund and the state staffing standard calls for nine, according to the presentation.

Board members supported the effort to reduce the use of one-time funds and wanted to see more recommendations for how to cut costs or make other adjustments to continue to do so over the next two budget cycles.

“When we get to next year, everything has to be on the table, not just always the [instructional assistants],” board member Lashundra Bryson Morsberger said, adding the budget should reflect the school system’s values. “I don’t see the resources going to the places that need it the most.”

The spending plan will be formally presented to the school board on Feb. 3. The board will vote on the request Feb. 24 before presenting it to City Council on March 7.

Gurley said that at this point, he’s not recommending a cut to any program related to children, but he told board members that they’ll have to make tough decisions about personnel who work with children.

Board member Jennifer McKeever said that the city has been clear that there has to be “some give” in the division’s operating budget in order for reconfiguration to be funded.

“This is a good faith effort and I would like to continue that effort by having additional recommendations,” she said. “So I think it would be helpful for them to see us making these hard choices.”

Overall, the initial draft of the proposal is a pared down request compared to previous budgets. New line items for school-based program improvements and support totals $48,800. Last year, the total was $1,854,199 and $475,578 in fiscal year 2020 — the last budget before the pandemic.

Typically, budget development conversations in Charlottesville focus on changes and new spending rather than the entire budget, which totaled $94 million for this fiscal year. About 84% of the expenses go toward instructional staff.

Overall, the school division is currently planning to request $4,039,070 from the city. Historically, the city has given the school division 40% of new real estate and property tax revenue, which would be $3.1 million for fiscal year 2023.

The $4 million would cover cost increases in contracts with the city for transportation and maintenance as well as a $15,000 storm water tax. The transportation contract is increasing by $567,062, which would include changes implemented this year to offer retention bonusesThe maintenance contract is increasing by $296,459. Both increases would cover the 6% raises recently approved by city council, Powell said.

Local funding makes up the bulk of the division’s budget. The city’s $58,709,632 base allocation to the school division hasn’t changed in the last two fiscal years. Last year, the division would’ve received $746,069 via the funding formula but that money was not requested given uncertainty surrounding the city’s revenues.

The School Board will discuss the spending proposal with the city council at a joint meeting next month. The board is hoping to meet in-person at Buford Middle School.

For the reconfiguration project, the division is expecting to have about $6.8 million left in federal funds to use for one-time projects.

Powell said construction projects are one option for that money if the Virginia Department of Education signs off on an application.

“Before we can submit the application, there needs to be some level of understanding, agreement and trust between elected bodies about how we are going to navigate the next two years,” Powell said.

Powell said one option for those funds is to pay for the school division’s non-reconfiguration projects in the city’s capital improvement plan, totaling $6.755 million. That would include the remaining renovation projects at Greenbrier, Johnson and Venable elementary schools and replacing the roof at Charlottesville High School.

The school system also received an $808,685 state grant for HVAC related projects. Using the grant and federal funds would leave as much as $7.56 million for the city to use in its capital budget.

About $75 million has been included in the city’s capital improvement plan for the first phase of reconfiguration.

“This is very exciting to see that we potentially have some money so that we can, in good faith, help,” board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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