Facilitator Craig Honick leads the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and School Board in discussion

The Albemarle Board of Supervisors and School Board inched closer to common ground Tuesday as the two bodies prepare for the upcoming budget season.

The most apparent piece of information the groups could agree upon, however, is that uniform definitions for a few key terms at the heart of budget planning were unlikely.

During a discussion about each Board’s responsibilities, Supervisor Liz Palmer questioned what it meant to ‘fully fund’ the schools. Currently the school division is funded through a formula which sends 60 percent of all new revenue its way.

“We’re supposed to fund the schools, but it’s up to the School Board to determine what they need,” Palmer said. “If the Board of Supervisors’ definition of full funding is meeting the formula and the School Board’s definition is giving the schools what they need to educate the children, those are two totally different things.”

During the same portion of the meeting in which defining what a ‘needs-based’ school budget was, Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd came to a similar conclusion.

“It sounds like the [School Board] can’t even decide what ‘needs-based’ means,” Boyd said. “We hear terms like 21st century schools…but how do you define any of that stuff?”

“It sounds like the [School Board] can’t even decide what
‘needs-based’ means,” Boyd said. “We hear terms like
21st century schools…but how do you define any of that stuff?”

Tuesday’s meeting is the result of last budget cycle, which School superintendent Pam Moran characterized as “one of the most arduous ones” of which she’d been a part.

Those budget talks saw the school division cut $3.9 million from its $164.3 million request. Those reductions, School Board Chair Ned Gallaway said, touched 75 percent of the school division’s strategic plan. Ultimately, the schools adopted a FY15 budget of $160.4 million.

During that time the Board of Supervisors raised the real estate tax rate 3.3 cents, from 76.6 cents to 79.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. Within the tax hike, 0.9 cents was dedicated to the schools.

School Board member Eric Strucko noted that the school division’s request was large.

“I’m not sure we thoroughly understood the implications for the Board of Supervisors, that in order to fully fund the ask, they’d have to raise the tax rate to an unprecedentedly high level,” Strucko said. “So it became ‘either fund this or you don’t support public education,’ and it never should have been that way.”

The two major drivers of the division’s growing costs were payments into the Virginia Retirement System and proposed pay raises.

The VRS increases added about $2.3 million to the schools’ spending plan. A Board of Supervisors- and School Board-mandated 1 percent salary increase for all County and Schools staff came with a cost of about $2.1 million.

The goal of Tuesday’s meeting was to improve communication between the two boards, and to provide each member with an opportunity to point to strengths and weaknesses in last year’s process.

School Board member Steve Koleszar said the largest problem the division faces is a result of the Commonwealth’s “continuous underfunding of education.”

Many of the elected officials also pointed to a lack of communication.

“We’re funding education policy, and we didn’t do a good job communicating that to the community,” School Board member Kate Acuff said, noting that adding the historical context that created the financial situation would have helped all parties.

“It was just ‘Here’s the education budget,’ and that didn’t provide the Board of Supervisors with what they needed, or the public with what they needed to understand it,” Acuff added.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek agreed, and said the Board of Supervisors received the school division’s budget on a Friday and were expected to have developed questions by the next Monday.

“Control was lost with this communication train, and we were made to feel like it was all or nothing and that anything we hadn’t funded in the last five years [the schools] wanted now,” Mallek said.

Supervisor and former School Board member Diantha McKeel said that communication could be more effective if the two boards had a plan for education.

“What’s missing is that our community has never established a vision for what education should look like,” McKeel said. “Are we going to have pre-K, a strong [career and technical] workforce education program, small class sizes?”

With respect to communication, Supervisor Jane Dittmar said she’d like to see each Board’s role more clearly defined to the public.

“There was a lack of understanding of our rules and responsibilities among our citizens,” Dittmar said. “I was receiving emails and communications from parents thinking that the Board of Supervisors was upping class sizes and [cutting] coaches, but those are School Board decisions.”

Supervisor Brad Sheffield, however, felt that the School Board didn’t do enough to advocate for their portion of the budget, noting that he was spending time defending the school’s spending plan.

“That left the public with no attention span to discuss other important elements,” Sheffield added.

Moving forward, the groups identified five areas that working groups will continue:

Tuesday’s meeting was facilitated by Craig Honick, a resident of Albemarle County and founder of the market research firm Sector Intelligence. He is being paid $750, which is being shared jointly between the school division and local government, Schools Officials said.

“As a citizen of the County I’m pleased with this meeting and the effort…to make next budget cycle much more productive and positive for the citizens,” Honick said.

Gallaway said the meeting will pay dividends.

“The whole fact that we’re already getting together and talking about the next budget cycle…I think says a lot,” Gallaway said. “I think the benefits are going to be good for our citizens.”