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Councilors have reservations over school division funding request

The thought of providing an additional $4.5 million to the Charlottesville school division in fiscal year 2023 is causing concern among some city councilors.

“The thing that is giving me at least heartburn is that you all have a vision, it seems, of getting back up to speed a lot faster than the rest of the city government is likely to be able to do,” Councilor Lloyd Snook said Thursday at a joint meeting of the council and the city School Board. “Our ability to get the rest of city government up to speed is going to be handicapped if we fully fund the additional money that you want.”

The school division’s $94.25 million funding request relies heavily on one-time federal funding to pay for a range of new positions, resources and programs to support students and employees as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, City Manager Chip Boyles has proposed a $190.6 million spending plan, which is slightly smaller that the current operating budget.

The joint meeting was the second of this budget cycle. Historically, the School Board and council hold one joint meeting a year to discuss the funding request. In Albemarle County, the Board of Supervisors and School Board hold several joint meetings throughout the year to discuss local revenues, expenses and capital projects.

A 5% raise for employees and other compensation changes make up more than half of the $4.9 million in new funding in the city school division request, which was approved by the School Board last month. The board is requesting $58.7 million from the City Council — the same amount as this fiscal year.

But, eventually, the council would have to cover the new expenses, as well as other other budget items that arise in future fiscal years.

Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins has made clear that the $4.9 million would be incorporated into the division’s base budget, which is the foundation for future funding requests.

That new base is causing reservations among councilors and city staff, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said.

“I think even having the conversation around that these things will be evaluated in the meantime to see if they would still be needed would probably help with the concerns that council and staff are having,” she said.

The division has about $752,845 in federal money to use in coming fiscal years to ease the burden on the council and plans to use future stimulus funds to reduce future asks. The current amount doesn’t include any new funding as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday.

That stimulus package will send money directly to the city government.

“The budget situation is a lot less difficult than it was even a day ago,” Councilor Michael Payne said.

Boyles’ budget currently doesn’t include a raise for non-school city employees, a point of contention during Thursday’s joint meeting.

“I looked at the cost to you all of those upgrades in your staffing, and it comes out pretty darned close to the amount it would cost us, within $100,000, to give our people the same raise you all are giving your people,” Snook said.

School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said the budget cycle isn’t “an us against you.”

“You represent our entire community,” she said. “Our students and teachers are part of this community. I would hope we can get beyond that.”

Snook responded that he wasn’t trying to make it an adversarial situation.

“Except to say, I think that when we set up a situation where one group of city employees gets a 5% raise and another group of city employees doesn’t, there is some tension there.”

Non-school city employees were given bonuses this past fall that ranged from $250 and $1,250 and were based on a variety of factors. School employees did not receive a raise or bonus during the current fiscal year.

State code allows a governing body to distribute funds either as a total sum or relating to classifications such as instruction or facilities. The council appropriates the schools funds as a lump sum, so it can only decide the dollar amount, not how the division spends the money.

At last week’s council budget work session, city budget analysts presented three options to the council regarding funding the school division: adopting the current request; not assuming an increase in the division’s base budget in fiscal year 2023; or reducing the contribution this fiscal year and using the savings to fund other items such as a 2% raise for city employees.

“If the funds are not available, cuts to services would be required,” said Kim Powell, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

The 5% raise was added to the school division’s funding request after state lawmakers included funding for such a pay bump in the Virginia budget. The division would receive an additional $358,701 from the state if it gives employees the 5% raise, which is not required.

That figure is based on the Local Composite Index — the formula that determines how state education dollars are doled out and incorporates a locality’s ability to pay.

Atkins initially had proposed a 2% raise.

“Why would we then say, ‘no, we don’t want this,’ to the governor when they’re actually putting money forward to enable us to do this and enable the staff to really catch up from the losses that were incurred by them last year,” School Board member Sherry Kraft said.

The funding request adds six full-time social workers and six instructional assistants for the second grade. Both sets of positions have been long-term goals of the division.

Snook said he questioned “whether this is a great time for anybody to be making a longer-term commitment based on one-time funds.”

Trying to get a sense of future operational costs, some councilors wondered how many of the new items and positions included in the funding request will be needed after the next few school years. School Board members said students’ needs following the pandemic won’t end in a year or two.

That was echoed by Payne and other councilors who acknowledged the acute and long-term needs of students.

“I think we just have to bake in, as was mentioned earlier, some of the impacts from the pandemic on students,” Payne said. “There’s no way to avoid that. It’s going to require investments and it’s going to have impacts on students’ entire educational career.”

Larson-Torres said the new spending items in the request were added with the students and equity in mind.

“I think we really did work hard to establish those positions and invest in things that we thought would make the biggest impact on our students coming back this next year, especially after the year that we’ve all had,” she said.

Atkins said the funding request was built based on not requesting additional funding from the council for fiscal year 2022 and to respond to the needs of students and employees. The division received a windfall of federal stimulus money in January.

Atkins said the division was planning to be frugal in the use of federal CARES Act dollars.

“And use them in a way that responded to an immediate need, understanding that in future budgets we would have to reconcile that,” she said.

The City Council will adopt a final budget next month.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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