Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Grinch after Christmas

School board abdicates responsibility

Happily, Goochland is replete with dogs and ponies. They will all get a good workout before the coming painful budget process is complete.

With the release of the proposed school budget for fiscal year 2010-11 on December 14 the school board indicated that it will follow its practice of past years by laying the blame for school budget cuts on the board of supervisors.

On Tuesday December 15, the school board held the first of several public hearings on next year’s proposed school budget, which was posted on the school website only the day before the hearing.

Held in the high school auditorium, the hearing attracted about 75 people including school officials; law enforcement; interested citizens and a handful of concerned parents.

Expected revenue shortfalls for the fiscal 2010-11 county budget are no surprise. County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson publicly informed the school board last fall that significantly less money will be available in the next budget cycle. She asked the school board to trim $2.7 million dollars from its spending plans.

The proposed budget is $25,339,366 versus last year’s $26,090,510, a reduction of $756,744.

Exacerbating the whole process is the delay in information about the magnitude of reduction in state funding. The good news there, if there is any, for Goochland is that we get only about 20 percent of our operating needs from state funds.

School board chairman Raymond Miller, District 2 read a prepared statement at the start of the meeting. This is available in its entirety on the school website.

Miller’s carefully scripted remarks ignored specific questions posed by parents at previous meetings. School superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood listed the strategies used to reduce the proposed 2010-11 budget.

These included eliminating the high school receptionist position and the Tender Tots program. Using attrition rather than lay offs to reduce the number of teachers. Contract employees who work more than 200 days per year will take two days of unpaid furlough. Underwood also said that the budget included a 12 percent increase in the cost of health insurance.

Only three people spoke during the public hearing.

Jo D. Hosken, a parent, observed that the current revenue shortfall puts a terrible burden on everyone. She said that better and more open lines of communication between the school board and parents are needed to enable them to work together to find compromise solutions. Hosken contended that there are many competent professionals in Goochland ready to pull together in “any way, shape or form” to find workable solutions to the fiscal challenges. Her comments fell on deaf ears.

Jane Christie, another parent, asked why the athletic coaching budget (line items 217 and 218) had been increased by about $150,000. She also wanted to know why the administrative staff was reduced by one percent while the instructional staff was cut five.

In some parts of the world, when money for schools is tight, the first item to be sliced from the budget is athletics.

In spite of all the exhortations that children need to be more active, just how many students participate in those athletic programs or are they reserved for a small elite? If that is the case, perhaps the athletic program could be funded by private sources.

Maybe the generous donors who paid to have a helicopter dry off the football field would be willing to cover the cost of the coaching staff.

Although Underwood has commented often that significant increases in health insurance costs have further complicated crafting the budget those increases are not clearly outlined in the proposed budget.

Christie asked why, if it is such an important issue, health insurance is not itemized in the proposed budget. It seems to be part of the broad category titled salaries and benefits for a total of $16,162,528 versus $16,945,899 in the current year’s budget (line item 8.)

Seeking to clarify one of the many budget rumors, Christie wanted to know if the health insurance premiums are expected to increase to $1 million or by $1 million.

Miller asked for questions in writing. Christie may get a personal written response, but that kind of information should be posted on the website.

Addressing other budget rumors, Christie asked why positions at the Maggie L, Walker Governor’s School, at approximately $8,000 annually per student were ever considered for elimination when the county spends about $10,894 annually per student. At that rate, why isn’t the county trying to send more students there?

The proposed budget indicates that about $130,000 is spent on summer school (line items 102,107,111,113,135,395 and 412) not including electricity. How many students attend summer school and is it a cost effective program?

Underwood contended that increases in water and sewer $2,250, (line item 457;) heat $45,000(line item 456) and electricity $33,630 (line item 455) were significant, yet together are less than the jump in the cost of the coaching staff.

The proposed school budget is not “a responsible budget to move Goochland forward” as Miller said in his remarks. Rather, it displays arrogant disregard for the fiscal realties of the times and blatant refusal on the part of the school board to operate in a transparent manner.

The next public hearing on next year’s proposed school budget will be held on Tuesday, January 12, 2010.

Please look at the proposed school budget and draw your own conclusions about the way our tax dollars are being used. A secret decoder ring should not be needed to decipher the school budget.

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