Sunday, February 21, 2016

Paying for schools

The Goochland School Board presented its proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins on July 1, to the Board of Supervisors on February 22.
School Board Chair W. Kevin Hazzard, District 2, and Superintendent Dr. James Lane were eager to share details about how and why the school division spends its money. Both gentlemen expressed the gratitude of the schools for the fiscal support of the county. They explained that three strategic goals guide education expenditures: maintain or enhance innovative instructional programs; attract and retain quality teachers and staff; and enhance operational efficiency.

Instead of struggling to keep its head above water in a fragile economy, like other jurisdictions, Goochland Schools continue to soar to new heights, reaping accolades for excellence on an almost daily basis (Lane was recently named 2016 superintendent of the year for Region I and is a finalist for Virginia Superintendent of the year.)

(The full budget is posted online at under the school board tab. While you’re there, take a spin around the new website and prepared to be wowed.)

This school board is cognizant of its mandate to be good stewards of tax dollars. Hazzard explained that the school division crafted a strategic plan that guides all of its actions, “not just words on paper.” The school division’s primary goal wants Goochland to be the best school system in the region by 2020. Hazzard contended that excellent schools are a crucial component of a vibrant community and drive economic development.

The proposed school budget is based on a county contribution of $20,710,000, which represents an increase of 2.2 percent over the current fiscal year. This is the amount that County Administrator Rebecca Dickson communicated to school administration last fell. The total proposed budget, which includes state and federal revenues, is $29,960,806.

Hazzard said that the schools are extremely grateful that county school transfer has returned to 2009 levels. Dickson pointed out that although county revenues are increasing, they have not yet recovered to 2009 levels.
To be sure, contemporary public education is an expensive proposition. Transparency lets the supervisors and citizens know how every penny is spent. Hazzard and Lane made it very clear that they welcome questions from the supervisors and citizens about the school budget.

The presentation included some interesting take aways.
Personnel and technology are the two largest spending categories in the school budget.

Our school division is growing, especially in the eastern end of the county. As of December 31, 2015, the average daily membership was 2,501 with additional students added in January. Randolph Elementary School is coping with the most vigorous growth, resulting in the need for additional English as a second language (ESL) teachers. Lane explained that when the RES student body hits 600, state law requires that an assistant principal be added to staff, which translates into at least a six figure bump in the school budget.

Starting salaries are quite competitive, allowing Goochland to attract the brightest and best young teachers. When they have a few years’ experience, however, those teachers tend to leave. Lane said that, while salary is a consideration, exit interviews indicate that housing prices in Goochland are a detriment to retaining teachers for the long haul. He also said that teachers who grew up with technology are more comfortable using it as a teaching tool.

As presented, the proposed budget does not include any salary increases. A three percent salary boost to remain competitive with neighboring jurisdictions is an additional $675,500.
Escalating costs for retirement and health care benefits will continue to be a concern.

The schools are working on a request for proposals(RFP) to extend fiber from the high school to Byrd Elementary School. This activity is eligible for an approximately 80 percent discount through grants. Options to allow users between BES and GHS to connect and offset the remaining cost are being explored.

Perhaps the biggest “ask” of the night was a request made by Hazzard for the supervisors to appropriate the school budget in a lump sum rather than by category.
Hazzard explained that the days of the million dollar turn back at the end of the fiscal year are over. The lump sum appropriation would remove a cumbersome layer of administration.
Under current practice, any changes in the school budget require approval by both the school board and supervisors, which can take up to two months to complete.

For instance, if the school budget uses $2.50 per gallon of fuel and the actual cost turns out to be $1.50, both the school board and supervisors must approve using any excess in the fuel account for other purposes during the year in which it was appropriated.
Should the supervisors agree to the lump sum appropriation—no decisions on the matter were made—funds could be moved from one category to another administratively. Hazzard pointed out that the supervisors have approved every such request in the last four years. He asked that the lump sum method be used for a trial period during which all documentation and information supporting these decisions would be given to the supervisors. “We would like two years to prove we could do a good job,” said Hazzard.

The lump sum appropriation decision would be made at the start of the annual budget process. The amounts in question tend not to be large, explained Hazzard.
Debbie White, Director of Finance for the school division, said that the two month wait to approve fund transfers is an artificial block that prevents efficiency. The school budget, she said, is managed daily by line item. It will be interesting to see if the supervisors cede categorical oversight on the school budget.

The schools face other fiscal challenges from a variety of sources not counting the “elephants in the corner” of funding health and retirement benefits.

The cafeteria fund, which has been self-sustaining, may need supplementation next year. Lane explained that federal school lunches mandates made the food less appealing to students, so fewer participate. Most of the students who do eat at the cafeteria qualify for subsidized lunches, making the program more expensive.

A new bus route, bus, and driver has been added to cope with burgeoning student enrollment.

The budget may need to be revised later in the year when a clearer picture of state and federal funds is available.

The school budget is no longer “a bucket with a hole in the bottom” but instead a clear picture of how tax dollars are used.
An excellent educational system is a crucial part of a vibrant community that must be funded in a prudent and accountable manner. The commitment and collaboration of our school board and supervisors to spend tax dollars wisely and transparently is bearing sweet fruit.

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