Orange County Public Schools will be receiving approximately $1.6 million less in funding that it had originally hoped for fiscal year 2024, but Superintendent Dr. Daniel Hornick remains optimistic that the district can make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
Hornick originally presented operating budget priorities for fiscal year 2024 to the county school board on Jan. 23 after meeting with staff and administration at each of the nine local schools throughout November and December. Initial priorities included avoiding passing on health insurance increases to employees, as well as a minimum 5% pay increase and 1% retention bonus for all full-time employees.
In addition, certain groups were targeted for raises above 5%, including mechanics, bus drivers, custodians, instructional assistants, speech pathologists and bookkeepers. The district also intended to offer teachers a 7% raise plus step increases.
The original priorities also included several new positions, including an assistant principal for Locust Grove primary and elementary schools, a technology testing and resource teacher for Unionville Elementary School, two new teachers for Locust Grove Middle School and a dedicated teacher-mentor position. The salaries of student support coaches and technology support specialists, which had previously been paid through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds, were incorporated into the regular budget to allow those positions to remain once ESSER funding ceases in 2024.
However, schools across the state were hit with an unpleasant surprise in late January when the Virginia Department of Education announced the presence of an error in the department’s calc tool. The error resulted in a $201 million loss in expected school funding throughout Virginia, including more than $414,000 in Orange County.
Based on what Hornick called “the new realities,” salaries for student support coaches were moved back into ESSER funding for fiscal year 2024, but the district was able to avoid further changes due in part to money saved by a reorganization of the central office, including elimination of the assistant superintendent position after current Orange County Assistant Superintendent Bill Berry retires at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
A proposed operating budget of $65.6 million, reflecting the revised priorities, was presented to the school board on Feb. 6 and approved Feb. 27, but the district faced another hurdle in mid-March when officials learned that Orange County Public Schools would likely be receiving $1.2 million less than it had asked for in county funding.
A couple of weeks later, the state department of education published a new calc tool based on the “skinny budget,” a stop-gap spending bill passed by the General Assembly in late February. Among the changes to the calc tool was the removal of the state’s portion of the 1% retention bonus for full-time employees.
In early April, Orange County school officials went to work creating an amended budget, and this time the changes were more significant. The retention bonus was cut, along with reducing the pay increase for teachers to an average of 5.3%. Technology support specialist positions returned to ESSER funding, and the new technology testing and resource teacher position was removed, meaning that Unionville will continue to share one teacher with nearby Lightfoot Elementary School.
The amended budget was presented on April 17 during a special called meeting and passed unanimously by the school board on May 1.
Despite the necessary changes, Hornick said that he was happy with the district’s communications with the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and that the shortfall in local funding seemed to be based more on the overall on the economic outlook for the county than any conflicting priorities.
“I think they saw a little bit of a decline in revenue and of course, as we’re looking forward into 2024 and the state of the economy as a whole, they’re taking that wide-angle lens and wanting to make sure that they’re covering the investment they’re making,” he said.
Hornick was also grateful that for county investments in capital projects at the schools, including a major HVAC repair at Gordon-Barbour Elementary School and walkway connectors at Unionville and Lightfoot elementary schools.
“There are localities around us that I’ve read about in the news where divisions have been level-funded for a number of years, and we weren’t this year,” he said. “There was a solid investment in behalf of our board of supervisors on some really important capital investment projects for us, and those are sometimes overlooked.”
Overall, county funding for fiscal year 2024 totals $23.2 million, an increase of approximately $792,000 from the previous year.
Furthermore, Hornick said he was relieved that the district was able to amend the budget without cutting current positions and retain most of the identified priorities for the year, such as raises above 5% for all targeted groups, such as bus drivers and instructional assistants, and not passing on health care cost increases. By utilizing a vacant position in another building, the new budget also includes the two new Locust Grove Middle School positions originally proposed.
As the state continues to negotiate its budget in the upcoming months, Hornick said it’s still possible that OCPS will receive additional state funds, allowing the district to reintroduce some of the priorities that have been removed. He said the district will continue to work toward offering more competitive salaries while simultaneously fostering an environment that makes employees more likely to stay.
“We want to make sure that we’re taking care of our folks with opportunities for growth and development, leadership opportunities, and feeling respected and valued,” he shared. “Those are all really important key factors that are more qualitative than quantitative, like a salary. And both of those two really need to be working in tandem, so we’ll continue to push to make sure that we’re remaining as competitive as we can in the salary and benefit range.”
For more information on Orange County Public Schools, including budget information and meeting minutes, visit www.ocss-va.org.