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Albemarle schools budget to face ‘hard decisions’

Responding to news that the Albemarle school division could face a funding gap of up to $4.4 million next year, the county School Board last week debated potential impacts of the shortfall, as well as the future of its capital project wish list.

The discussion came as part of a conversation that schools Superintendent Pam Moran will use to inform her funding request, which she will present to the public in January.

“The bottom line is that there is obviously a significant difference between projected expenditures and available revenues, and some hard decisions have to be made about what we can do to reduce costs and what additional revenues might be forthcoming” said Dean Tistadt, the school division’s chief operating officer.

Last year, the division allocated 76 percent of its budget to instruction, meaning teachers and administrators who work directly or indirectly with children. Because that is such a large amount of money — just over $122 million — that is often where officials look to make cuts, schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said.

Last year the School Board voted to increase class size averages and reduce salary increases in order to balance its budget, but board member Steve Koleszar said he isn’t sure if that can happen again.

“I have a feeling that our staff is putting a higher priority on compensation now than they did maybe five or six years ago,” Koleszar said. “So if we aren’t able to find additional revenue to do teacher raises, we may have to find ways to cut elsewhere to do some kind of a raise for our staff.”

Moran agreed, saying that in the past many teachers have preferred lower or frozen salaries to increasing class sizes.

“We did hear from the advisory council the other day that compensation is a top priority for teachers,” Moran said.

Assistant Superintendent Matt Haas said that in many cases — due to rising health care and Virginia Retirement System costs — teachers’ gross pay has increased, but their net pay has declined over time.

During a joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, Tistadt proposed two funding scenarios, one of which included 2 percent pay raises for teachers and 2.3 percent raises for classified staff. Those raises, according to that scenario, would occur Jan. 1, 2016, not on July 1, 2015 — the first day of the upcoming fiscal year.

School Board member Eric Strucko called the idea a “budgeting gimmick.”

Tistadt noted that this approach could cause future problems because Albemarle couldn’t give fiscal year 2016 raises for half of the year, and then implement fiscal year 2017 raises six months later.

Ned Gallaway, chairman of the School Board, said he doesn’t want to increase class size to pay for compensation “because then you’re wiping out the compensation.”

What’s more, School Board member Kate Acuff said, is that the division won’t have the flexibility to absorb class size increases given the approximately 300 new students Albemarle is expecting next year.

Albemarle’s Technical Review Committee has completed the first part of the three-step capital project planning process. During the joint meeting, the school division learned that not all of its top priorities were funded.

The division’s major classroom modernization request — $70 million over 10 years — only received $6 million over two years, and new laboratories for the Western Albemarle High School Environmental Sciences Academy weren’t funded.

These projects will now head to the Oversight Committee, which represents the second step. Tistadt said the School Board’s priorities have been articulated to the Oversight Committee, which can change the Technical Review Committee’s recommendations.

An alternative to seeking funding through the CIP process, Tistadt said, would be to seek a bond referendum for the remaining eight years for which the modernization project wasn’t funded, though that’s not happened in recent county history.

“The timing of that would be a year or two out,” Tistadt said, noting that the idea should be discussed with the Board of Supervisors at their joint meeting Dec. 10.
“That would be a sea change for Albemarle County,” Moran said.

The third step in the CIP process is adoption by the Board of Supervisors in the spring.

With respect to the CIP process as a whole, Tistadt said the school division isn’t the only department coming up short.

“If you look at the list, the number of projects not being completed for the county … there’s a dramatic unmet need of capital facilities, and the way it’s being dealt with incrementally is never going to get them solved,” Tistadt said.

“So we can continue doing what we’re doing and every year get one new project on our side and they get one new project on the county side, or we can try to dramatically change the paradigm and do something different,” Tistadt added.

The School Board next meets Dec. 4.