The Albemarle School Board Thursday adopted an operational budget of $160.4 million. This represents a three percent increase from last year’s $155.3 million.
“There is not a Board member I think tonight who was happy with all the cuts we had to make, but it was the reality of the situation,” School Board Chair Ned Gallaway said.
The Board had to slash $3.9 million from its original funding request to arrive at a balanced spending plan.
Increasing class size averages by 0.2 students and reducing salary increases for staff from two percent to one did the majority of the heavy lifting to reach that figure.
Reducing employee raises saved the division $1.1 million.
Average class sizes in Albemarle will now be 20.1 in elementary schools, 21.7 students in middle schools, and 20.9 students in high schools.
School Board member Eric Strucko opposed upping class sizes throughout the process and said that the Board could have found the $612,000 the move saved in other areas.
Snowden Kindler, a Monticello High School student, expressed concern about upping class size averages, and challenged the Board to keep thinking.
“We encourage you to continue to search for creative ways to find alternative funding so this doesn’t become a recurring pattern,” Kindler said. “Maybe [find] a way to work with students and teachers to find if there’s certain ones that would prefer larger class sizes.”
“I know there’s some who teach in a lecture format and the additional one or two students isn’t a huge deal to them,” Kindler added. “And some…students won’t mind being in a larger class.”
The Board also removed from its budget about $290,000 for Bright Stars, the County’s pre-k program for at-risk youth. The Board did not vote to cut the program, but they did ask the Board of Supervisors to absorb that cost.
Originally, the County government paid for the entire program. During past budget difficulty, however, local government asked the school division to contribute, and the schools have ever since.
Colin Murphy, a Monticello High School student, advocated for the retention of the Bright Stars funds.
“Removing this funding for Bright Stars puts a lot children at risk, who already were at risk,” Murphy said, citing costs communities recoup in other areas as a result of high-quality pre-k programs.
“We understand that money is slim, but that’s the very reason why we’re pushing for expanded pre-k,” Murphy added. “To eliminate this funding for Bright Stars is a solution that’s worse than the problem.”
According to a February 27 impact statement, Social Services Director Kathy Ralston said an elimination of these funds could impact as many as seven employees and two classrooms.
Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she’d “be very concerned about those positions going away.”
“They’re critical to the program, schools, and families,” McKeel said. “I’ve heard for years principals speaking to their importance.”
A solution to some of the school division’s financial hardships could come in the form of one-time money from the Board of Supervisors.
At an April 15 meeting, the Supervisors opted not to extend one-time money to the schools, citing Capital Improvement Program needs, as well as the uncertainty of what the current year’s fund balance will be before the fall audit is completed.
“The difficulty is with the fact that the Board of Supervisors won’t be meeting again until May 7,” Gallaway said. “I think the conversation will occur. It wasn’t talked about what the outcome of the conversation may be, but I think it’s fair to say it will be discussed.”
While an infusion of one-time money from the Supervisors might change some of the decisions the School Board made, the Board felt it necessary to adopt a budget Thursday in order to provide teachers with contracts for the upcoming year.
“Otherwise you risk losing teachers,” School Spokesman Phil Giaramita said. “If there’s no contract by May, either they seek other jobs, or they get recruited by other school divisions.”
McKeel said she’s hopeful the Board of Supervisors “would entertain the use of one-time money for one-time expenses,” and underscored the importance of the two Boards collaborating to establish sustainable funding for the school division.
“Part of it might well look at what’s appropriate for the Board of Supervisors to pay for and what’s appropriate for the School Board to pay for,” McKeel said. “All of this is something we might charge an independent commission to look into.”
Superintendent Pam Moran said she’s surprised to still be dealing with budgeting difficulties seven years after the recession began.
“It’s not that we’ve added significant cost,” Moran said. “It’s simply a matter of us having to address mandates, such as VRS, that have really added a financial burden on this school division.”
“I would love to see us solve that, as well as to lobby to get some changes in place,” Moran added.