Albemarle School Board Chair Ned Gallaway

Even though Albemarle County’s budget deadline is nearing, the fiscal waters aren’t becoming any less muddy for the school division.

And that murky financial landscape is just what Albemarle Supervisor Liz Palmer wanted more clarity on during the School Board’s update to the Board of Supervisors Wednesday.

“My question is still the ‘what if.’ What do you cut if we approve a tax rate of 79.8 [cents per $100 of assessed value], if we took it down one penny from the advertised rate?” Palmer asked. “I’m trying to get an idea of exactly what would happen under those circumstances.”

In past years, a tiered list of possible reductions would accompany the School Board’s funding request to the County Government.

The purpose of this list is to provide the County Executive and Board of Supervisors with an idea of where the school division would cut, if necessary.

Due to the large size of the then-$6.8 million deficit, and a cloudy revenue forecast, in February the School Board opted to submit one long list of areas the division would consider cutting.

“When you face a $5 million deficit, for example, you might make different cuts than if you face a $3 million deficit,” Schools Spokesman Phil Giaramita said.

To that end, School Board Chair Ned Gallaway said providing the Supervisors with more detail about where they would cut is tough.

“It’s very difficult for the School Board to go there because in the universe of cuts that we provided,” Gallaway said “it’s probably not going to be the nature of what we cut, it’s going to be how much we cut.”

Currently, the schools need $5.8 million to balance their funding request, however even that amount may change depending on the resolution of the state’s budget. The General Assembly was not able to approve a state budget on schedule.

The Board of Supervisors have advertised a 4.2 cent tax increase that, if adopted in full, would raise taxes to 80.8 cents per $100 of assessed value, but would still leave the division $2.4 million short.

“Unfortunately, some of the items that exist on the universe of cuts are small in nature, and with the potential size in the gap…we’re not going to get to the $2.4 million just by cutting some of the smaller items,” Gallaway said, citing that two top priorities—protecting class size and increasing staff pay—are also the most costly to the division.

Increasing class size averages by 0.25 students to 1 student would result in a reduction of the division’s funding request by $392,000 on the low end and $2.9 million on the high end.

Reducing a proposed pay increase for all teachers and staff by one percent could decrease the request by as much as $1.1 million on the low end and $2.2 million on the high end.  

“[H]ow we think about how much we’re going to cut some of those things on that list is dictated by the size of the funding gap, if one exists,” Gallaway added, noting that the division’s tier one priority is for its budget request to be fully funded.

Despite this, Palmer said it would help the School Board’s cause to paint a clearer picture for the Supervisors.

Gallaway said the division can begin to do that once it has a revenue figure, and said the School Board is in unanimous support of working with the Supervisors to find a more sustainable funding model for the schools.

County Executive Tom Foley agreed.

“At some point we’re going to want to have some conversation with the School Board about things that you want to do differently in the future,” Foley said, noting that the two boards should do this before creating the next five-year financial plan.

Supervisor and former School Board member Diantha McKeel suggested forming an independent committee to examine the Schools’ funding situation.

“It’s going to need to have some outside people on it that aren’t School people and aren’t County Government,” McKeel said.

Facing similar revenue issues, last fall Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to develop new funding strategies for the City’s schools.

In January the Commission provided the Charlottesville School Board and City Council with its final report, which featured both near- and long-term “action alternatives” that ranged from tax increases, to school closings, to land use agreements with the University of Virginia.  

“We don’t see this as a one-time issue,” Gallaway said. “We think this is going to be the reality moving forward, and if we don’t figure out a way to sustainably figure out these issues we’re going to be back here next year doing the same thing.”

Foley said that potential dates for an initial meeting with the School Board will be discussed at the Supervisors next day meeting in May.

The Board of Supervisors is slated to adopt a final budget on Tuesday, April 15.