(L-R) Jackson Zimmerman, finance director for Albemarle County Public Schools, and Dean Tistadt, the division's chief operating officer, advise the School Board.

After months of review, the Albemarle County School Board voted 5-1 to adopt a $167,067,883 spending plan for fiscal year 2016 — a 4.2 percent jump from the current year’s budget of just over $160.4 million for the division, which serves nearly 14,000 students.

Heading into Thursday night’s meeting, the division faced a $246,000 gap. To close that shortfall and adopt a balanced budget, the board voted 5-1 — with board member Jason Buyaki against and board member Eric Strucko absent — to reduce 3.48 full-time-equivalent positions from the division’s emergency staffing formula.
Emergency staffing is a pool a school division can pull from if enrollment at a particular school exceeds projections.

Buyaki said increasing class sizes was a “non-starter,” and said he’d prefer Superintendent Pam Moran make discretionary reductions throughout the division.
But School Board member Kate Acuff disagreed.

“I understand that class sizes are important, but they’re not even the most important thing, and treating them as though they’re sacrosanct ties our hands,” Acuff said.

Moran — who advised the board to reduce the positions — said the cut wouldn’t “have even a moderate impact” on classrooms, and said that while she could ask departments other than instruction to make cuts to close the gap, in recent years those departments have taken the biggest hits.

“Our departments last year really took a slash,” Moran said, “and compared to other divisions in Northern Virginia, and in Charlottesville, we’re in rarified air when it comes to class size.”

“In fact, we’re in a better position going into next year than we were in last year, with respect to class sizes,” said Ned Gallaway, chairman of the School Board.

Additionally, with about $1 million in the division’s fund balance and about $482,000 in workers compensation savings, the division found itself with about $1.5 million in potential one-time monies.

Of concern throughout the budget process was providing a 2 percent raise for teachers for the entire school year.

In December, the Board of Supervisors and School Board jointly decided to start their respective budgets with smaller raises — 2 percent for teachers and 2.3 percent for classified staff — timed to take effect six months into the fiscal year. The delayed start cut $1.3 million from the budget proposal.

However, at a School Board public hearing on the budget, numerous teachers said even a 2 percent increase would be inadequate, and the School Board began planning for those raises to cover three-quarters of the fiscal year.

But on Thursday the board voted 5-1 — with Buyaki opposed — to use $359,219 from the fund balance to cover the pay raise starting July 1 for teachers.

Despite voting in favor of the motion, School Board member Pam Moynihan said she didn’t like the idea of using the fund balance in this instance.

“I hope something like this isn’t going to become a habit,” she said.

With respect to classified staff, the board voted 5-1 — with Buyaki opposed — to use $57,600 from the division’s lapse factor to fund starting classified staff raises Oct 1, instead of Jan. 1. Lapse factor is savings realized from leaving unfilled positions open, or by filling a position once occupied by a more-experienced worker with a less-experienced one who will earn a lower wage.

The decision to offer raises for only three-quarters of the year for classified staff, School Board member Steve Koleszar said, was to maintain commonality with local government. Commonality is an effort made by local government and the school division to pay employees equally for similar jobs.

At Gallaway’s urging, the board also voted to use $90,000 from the fund balance to support the fine arts pathways at the high schools, as well as activities such as Destination Imagination and robotics.

The final expenditure of the night totaled $60,000 to begin converting student records into digital formats.

Reflecting on the process, Gallaway said this year’s budget cycle was not as contentious as last year’s, when the division had to slash $3.9 million.

“While we still have frustrating economic times and frustrating things that the state is not doing, our relationship and our work with the Board of Supervisors really just felt better,” he said.