Currently, Albemarle County Public Schools' funding request is $3.1 million greater than projected revenues. Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools

After one week and two work sessions in the fiscal year 2016 budget process, Albemarle County Public School’s gloomy financial picture isn’t becoming any clearer.

“Overall, this request is a very modest request,” Jackson Zimmerman, director of finance for the school division, told the board during a recent work session. “The key takeaway we’re trying to communicate is that new revenues are needed to maintain the quality and excellence we expect this division to maintain.”

Earlier this month superintendent Pam Moran presented the School Board with a $166.9 million funding request, which is a 4 percent increase from the current $160.4 million budget. However, with new revenues projected to jump only 2 percent, the School Board is facing a $3.1 million deficit.

Compensation and benefits

The most significant factor contributing to this year’s shortfall is proposed raises for staff. Currently, the Board of Supervisors and the School Board endorse 2 percent raises for teachers and 2.3 percent raises for classified staff — a move that comes with a $1.3 million price tag. To save money, the two boards agreed during the fall five-year planning process to start those raises in the middle of next fiscal year.

Due to new enrollees and a 9.6 percent spike in premiums, the schools will see $2.2 million in new health benefit costs. Because staff raises wouldn’t be implemented until the middle of the fiscal year, School Board Chairman Ned Gallaway said some employees’ net pay could decline for the first three months of the school year. As a result, Gallaway said he anticipates hearing about the potential of using one-time money to implement the raises at the start of the fiscal year.

Increased growth and decreased spending

Between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2015, the division’s enrollment jumped 980 students, from 12,531 to 13,511. During those same years, Albemarle saw its state dollars decrease by about $270,000 — from $45.78 million to $45.51 million — and its local contributions to schools rise about $15.6 million—from $99.61 million to $115.30 million.

Zimmerman pointed to the trend of decreased state funding as problematic.

“That’s less revenues from the state for [almost] 1,000 more students, excluding the impacts of inflation,” Zimmerman said.

“Our student body grew 2.3 percent this year,” Zimmerman added. “Our revenues didn’t grow as much as our student body grew.”

Within the entire student body, schools officials noted that expenditures necessary for the special education and English as a Second or Other Language populations grew by about $387,000 this year. This population also is growing at a rate of 6 percent, compared to the entire division’s 2.3 percent growth rate. The special education population has grown by 53 students over the last four years, said Kevin Kirst, the school division’s director of special education and student services.

Additionally, the division is accounting to spend about $457,000 under the mandated Comprehensive Services Act, which provides services to students with extreme special needs.

The board also heard from principals about the potential consequences individual schools will face if the division’s growth isn’t funded. Failing to do so, the principals said, would likely lead to increased class sizes, which would ultimately hurt struggling students who often need smaller class sizes.

Technology

During a discussion about technology spending and its importance, teachers Jill Williams and Jessica James highlighted how the presence of personal computers in the schools aids instruction and student learning.

James, a teacher at Jack Jouett Middle School, said having technology available can positively impact how a teacher paces coursework.

For example, James said, when teachers had to reserve computer labs, they were forced to teach certain content only when the computers were available. However, now that Jouett’s students have computers, the teachers are able to use technology to teach content when it’s appropriate.

Williams, a teacher at Western Albemarle High School, said technology is allowing students to expand learning beyond the classroom.

“They can access [the Internet] at home, at school, and can use Google Docs to revise,” Williams said. “It’s really powerful.”

Protecting existing programs

With respect to expanding current programming, School Board member Steve Koleszar said he’d like to see the division’s elementary world languages program, which is currently housed at Cale Elementary School, grow to at least one additional elementary school.

“Unfortunately, there’s this history of the board wanting to do this for the last 16 years, but every year, we get to this point and get stonewalled,” Koleszar said.

Rusty Carlock, Albemarle’s international and English as a Second or Other Language program coordinator, said some principals have expressed interest in starting the new curriculum at their schools, and that for a school with an enrollment of 400 or below, the division could move forward for about $100,000.

Debbie Collins, Albemarle’s director of K-12 instruction, said that if the School Board decided to move forward, one option would be to hire someone to plan the implementation for the 2016-17 school year. Doing so would cost less than $100,000 this year, Collins said, noting that costs would increase each year as the program grows.

Moran said she could use some of the funds from the frozen assistant superintendent position for the initiative.

School Board member Eric Strucko said he also wants to expand the program, but wonders if they should expand to another elementary school or grow it up through Walton Middle School to accommodate the Cale students as they arrive.

Gallaway reminded staff to implement the human resources strategy of hiring bilingual teachers for the effort, as doing so minimizes personnel spending.

The School Board plans to hold a public hearing, followed by another budget work session, at 6:30 pm. Thursday at the County Office Building on McIntire Road.

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