Ed Gillaspie presents recent school funding trends at the Blue Ribbon Commission's first meeting

Last week, a 13-member citizen group tasked with tackling Charlottesville City Schools’ recent funding woes asked for more clarity about their charge.

The formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission is the result of decreases in state and federal contributions to local schools, and multiple requests the schools have made to City Council for one-time funds needed to balance the operating budget, a pattern Leslie Beauregard, the City’s Director of Budget and Performance Management, said is not sustainable.

“If we don’t have a sustainable funding source, what will keep happening is the schools will keep chipping away at their budget,” Beauregard said. “And at this point, there is evidence that this would mean severe programs would get cut.”

“On the City [government] side,” Beauregard added, “we’d have to do the same thing.”

But Commission members, appointed by City Manager Maurice Jones, expressed confusion about their central mission. Member and former Charlottesville Mayor Bitsy Waters questioned where the group should focus its efforts.

“It’s one thing to stick up for schools,” Waters said. “But it’s another thing to be thinking about all of these other services.”

“Are we putting ourselves in the mindset of ultimate decision makers here or are we school advocates or both?” Waters asked.

Retired developer Steve Runkle questioned what sustainability in school funding looks like.

“If we’re trying to figure out how we finance the system we have now,” Runkle said, “that’s different than saying ‘Are there different ways that we can get to the same kinds of results in a different way?’”

A lack of successful examples similar groups had proposed concerned Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine.

“What are the policy levers that are in front of us, and where are our opportunities?” Trowbridge asked City and Schools officials. “What are the real decisions that we’re being forced to make?”

Charlottesville’s schools receive about one-third of the City’s General Fund, which, in the last 7 years, has netted the division approximately $40 million from the City annually. Including state and federal funds, the school’s fiscal year 2013 budget was about $70 million.

But $3.5 million in federal cuts to City schools over the last 4 years has left the division to ask City Council for funds to cover the budget shortfalls.

In order to balance the operating budget for fiscal year 2013, the City gave the schools $1.8 million in one-time money from the General Fund, and the schools used $1.49 million in capital improvement money.

For fiscal year 2014, the City gave the schools $2.63 million to balance the division’s operating budget.

In 2009, education consultants MGT of America conducted an efficiency review of Charlottesville City Schools. Among other cuts, the study recommended closing one elementary school, eliminating 62 instructional assistant positions, and nearly 13 teachers.

But City Councilor and former School Board member Kathleen M. Galvin, who initiated the Blue Ribbon Commission, argues that following MGT’s advice too closely would negatively impact Charlottesville’s quality of life.

“Having neighborhood schools is becoming the Charlottesville calling card because we’re a walkable community,” Galvin said. “[Citizens] don’t want to be in the car or for their kids to be in a school bus for hours a day.”

“If you close a school, you’re diminishing that walkability,” Galvin added.

While Galvin doesn’t want to influence the Commission’s outcomes, she hopes that there’s consensus.

“I’m not going to say or second guess what they’ll come up with,” Galvin said. “But we’ve told them to look at our revenue streams, and at raising revenue streams including bonding….They’re also going to look at places we need to cut.”

“We have to really find out what the essential mission is, but not take that to mean the lowest common denominator,” Galvin added. “We’re talking about children and the future of our society.”

Jones said he hopes the Commission’s report, which will be delivered to City Council in December, will be taken into account during the budgeting process for fiscal year 2015.