Budget stories covering Goochland public schools

New textbooks are history  

 

Goochland County Public Schools will suffer a $1.9 to 2.5 million reduction from county funds for its 2010 budget, according to Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools. 

“The problem is the money’s not there,” Underwood said at a Goochland Middle School PTA meeting on October 1. “We won’t be doing a textbook adoption for years.”

One alternative to new textbooks is digital textbooks, but would require that each child receive a laptop computer, Underwood said.

Funding from the state and many granting institutions are based on a locality’s need. Because Goochland has relatively high property values, Underwood said finding money for new textbooks is difficult.

“It’s a blessing, and a curse,” Underwood said of Goochland’s high property values. 

Underwood added that decreases in sales tax revenues, along with falling property values, has been the primary cause for the fund reduction.

“We’re going to take a significant hit with local funds,” Underwood said, noting that state funds were also reduced, exacerbating the situation.

Underwood said the school division will have to prioritize its programs, while maintaining all mandates, to ensure its effectiveness under the reduced budget.

James Haskell, District 1 school board member, said “it’s all about money in, money out.”

“The trouble with us is most of our money to goes to people’s salaries,” Haskell said in a phone interview. “Unfortunately, you can only cut [expenses] so far until you start cutting people. We don’t have a lot of extra positions.”

Rudy Butler, District 4 supervisor, said that the only way to replace the lost funds would be to increase taxes.

“Other school systems have had to cut back on administrative staff,” Butler said. “I would think we’d have to take a look at everything.”

Orange County Public Schools has also been affected by local revenue shortfalls. Last year, OCPS reduced its staff by 56 positions.

Budget cuts are affecting everyone, Butler said, although the timing is especially painful for Goochland, given that Goochland Middle School did not make its Adequate Yearly Progress.

At the Oct. 1 event, Wendy Hobbs, Goochland’s NAACP president, asked Underwood if federal stimulus money could be used for SOL tutoring.

Underwood said there was stimulus money for special education tutoring, and Johnette Burdette, GMS principal, said that her staff had already begun preparing for SOLs. Traditionally, SOL prep begins in the spring, Burdette said.

“Our number-one priority is preserving instruction,” Underwood said. “Goochland is the wealthiest county in the nation, but we still have to buckle down.”

Goochland hired eight new administrative staff this year, including four funded with stimulus money which lasts for two years.

Hobbs expressed concern for the positions funded by stimulus money, and asked what would happen in two years when the funding ceased.

Underwood said that if the school division received alternative funding to stimulus money, the division could keep the positions, but if no money was available, the positions would be eliminated.

 

 

– Published in the October 8, 2009 edition of The Central Virginian.

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Budget woes hitting Goochland schools

$2.9 million in cuts, citizens speak out

 

Goochland County Public Schools is looking to eliminate nearly $3 million from next year’s budget.

At the November 3 board of supervisors meeting, 12 citizens expressed concerns about the impact of the cuts on the school system, and many said they were willing to pay a higher tax rate to replace the lost revenue.

“I will gladly pay the $500 that my taxes went down this year so that my children can continue to have a quality education,” said John Grigg, whose children attend Randolph Elementary School.

Rebecca Dickson, county administrator, told the supervisors that county revenues are expected to decrease by nearly $5.5 million next year. The expected drop in revenue is a result of decreasing real estate and personal property values.

Because 55 percent of the county budget goes to schools, the education system could experience the largest reduction of funds.

Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools, said in an interview that the proposed $2.9 million budget cut was too much for the school division.

“We can’t take a hit that big,” Underwood said, adding that she and her staff are “going through the operational budget, line by line.”

Underwood suggested that cuts would likely come from furloughs, reducing or eliminating the recruiting budget, cutting textbooks and consolidating bus routes.

Underwood did not discount cutting salaries, although Goochland teachers earn nearly $6,000 less than the state average, according to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

Other rising expenses, such as fuel oil prices and health insurance costs, have also added to the financial worry of the school division.

Compounding the situation even further, is the rise in transportation costs for the county, as a result of more special needs students bused to other school divisions to receive services not available in Goochland.

For many Goochland residents, the lack of money is not a good enough reason to allow the school division to make budget cuts.

Heather Wilckens teaches first grade at Randolph, and was adamant that students not suffer as a result of the anticipated decline in revenue.

“I started with a class of 15 students,” Wilckens said. “Last year I had 20… I gained three students after one week, all coming from Henrico County… All the children deserve attention from their teachers, and when that attention gets divided one more time by one more student, and one more student, that [attention] goes down.”

However, Goochland residents’ call for increased taxes to supplement the devalued properties isn’t as easy as many would hope.

According to estimates provided by the county, Goochland would have to raise its real estate tax 7.25 cents to collect the $2.9 million needed for the school budget. Countywide, the rates would have to increase by 13.6 cents to make up the entire difference in projected revenue.

Ned Creasey, District 3 supervisor, said in an interview that “raising any kind of revenue is an interesting dilemma.”

“I would hope that [county staff] would look at the long view,” Creasey said. “[They should] hear what folks have to say, and make informed and wise strategic decisions.”

While other school division are facing similar problems, Goochland’s relative affluence exacerbates the situation locally.

Goochland schools receives  80 percent of its funds from local sources and local revenues are projected to decrease.

Fluvanna County Public Schools, by contrast, receives approximately 55 percent of its funds from the state, with only 37 percent coming from local sources, and the remainder coming from the federal level.

Dr. Thomas Smith, FCPS superintendent, said that because of Virginia’s commitment to avoid cutting funds in education, Fluvanna is positioned to ride out the recession, although he was hesitant to make any concrete predictions.

“We’re above projections in student growth,” Smith said in a phone interview. “We’re hopeful that these additional students will help make up the difference, but it’s not a certainty.”

State funds are given based in part on enrollment figures. However, Fluvanna schools still face similar problems as other local divisions.

“We’re being very careful with expenditures,” Smith said, adding that “it looks to be a very tight year from state revenue.”

Despite the potential for revenue loss, Smith said that one of the highest priorities facing the school board is un-freezing the teachers’ salaries “back to where they should be on the salary scale.”

VDOE records indicated that FCPS teachers earned an average of $46,405 in 2008, which is roughly $2,500 below the state average.

Dr. Robert Grimesey, Orange County superintendent of schools, said enrollment in Orange has been less than projected, and that determining next year’s budget will prove challenging.

“There’s no discussion of mandates or requirements in a time of minimum resources,” Grimesey said. “State legislators need to start revisiting the many mandates they put on public schools, and if this is a good time to be adding more expectations and more requirements to what we expect from our schools.”

Bill Janis, 56th District delegate, said that mandates come from the Board of Education’s Standards of Quality, and that he does not support unfunded mandates.

“A lot of school systems have too much tail and not enough tooth,” Janis said in an interview. “There’s not enough money spent in the classroom.”

 

– Published in the November 12, 2009 edition of The Central Virginian.

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Budget battle begins

 

In an effort to cut $2.9 million from next year’s budget, Goochland’s school administration has proposed eliminating at least 20 full-time employees, including 10 teachers.

At the school board workshop on Nov. 24, Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools, suggested cuts in 43 different line items amounting to $1.5 million in reductions.

This remaining $1.4 million is equal to 27 teaching positions, Underwood told the board. 

More than 20 citizens attended the meeting to voice their concerns that the budget cuts would hurt the school system. Many said they were willing to pay more taxes to ensure that school programs and jobs were not lost, and urged the board to be creative in handling the budget crunch.

“It is our responsibility to find a better way to finance the quality educational system for the future of these children and our community,” said Jane Christie, a Goochland resident for 18 years. “And not to make such sweeping and damaging cuts to try and balance the budget in the space of a single year.”

During separate interviews, supervisors Andrew Pryor (District 1) and Ned Creasey (District 3) said that they were reluctant to raise taxes until the county revenue situation becomes more clear.

“I’ve gotten a whole lot more calls against raising taxes,” Creasey said.

At the November 4 board of supervisors meeting, citizens gathered in earnest to make their voices heard.

John Grigg, a local real estate agent who sits on the schools’ facilities committee, said that he would be happy to pay more taxes to ensure Goochland children continue to receive exceptional educational services.

But the school division is charged with drafting a budget that operates within the county’s proposed revenue projections.  The current real estate tax rate of $.53 per $100 of assessed value in conjunction with the devaluing real estate market is the primary cause for the budget reduction.

Based on estimates provided by county administration, raising the tax rate to $.61 cents would raise the $2.9 million. The entire county is expecting a $5.4 million reduction in revenue, which would require a tax rate of $.67.

“Raising any kind of revenue is an interesting dilemma,” Creasey said in an interview. “[The county should] hear what folks have to say, and make informed and wise strategic decisions.”

Last year, the division faced an 18-percent increase in insurance costs, and this year it faces another 12-percent increase, further complicating the budget process.

In an interview with Underwood, she explained that the public doesn’t see the work that goes on behind the scenes, much of which is mandated by federal or state authorities.

“If we didn’t get those things done, the public would know,” she said. “Those are the things that, because they’re invisible, it’s tough to explain.”

Underwood claimed that the central office staff is “very streamlined,” and is “staffed on the low end” compared to neighboring school divisions.

All staff reduction would be subject to the reduction in force (RIF) policy, which is still in its draft form. The proposed policy would require the school division to issue letters 30 days in advance to anyone in danger of losing his/her job.

“My worry is, we lose a lot of good people who might go to another school,” said Ivan Mattox, District 3 school board member at the November 24 workshop.

Underwood noted that the upcoming budget year presented much uncertainty for the county and the division. This fiscal precariousness  requires the division to be careful in choosing how many RIF letters to send out and when to send them.

The proposed RIF policy does not address part-time employees, although Miller recommended the division include all employees in the policy.

 

– Published in the December 3, 2009 edition of The Central Virginian.

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Goochland’s gifted on the chopping block

Gifted Center & Maggie Walker could provide 5% of needed cuts

 

When Katie Shedden entered high school last year, her education in Goochland’s center-based gifted program distinguished her from her peers.

The sophomore began taking French in the third grade, which has enabled her to take advanced language courses for half of her lifetime.

But Shedden’s opportunity might not be available for future students, as the program could be cut from next year’s budget as a result of the $2.9 million budget reduction.

“I love the center,” Shedden told the school board on Dec. 1. “[I have] memories and friends that I will never forget and forever cherish… If any of us did not understand, we could help each other.”

Shedden was one of the first to enter the center-based gifted program at Goochland Elementary School, which serves grades three, four and five.

Her mother, Jane Christie, has another daughter, Jessica, who is currently at the gifted center.

“I get kind of bored in normal third-grade math,” Jessica said. “I like learning about multiplication, algebra and division.”

Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools, said that closing the gifted center would eliminate two full-time employees and would save $115,260 in salaries and benefits and $28,996 in transportation costs–less than five percent of the total cuts recommended by the county administration.

Underwood said that the gifted program would be changed to a pull-out program, in which the children would attend regular classes and be removed from class for special gifted programs.

The quality of education would not be compromised, Underwood claimed, despite the lack of a full-time gifted classroom.

Dozens of parents and concerned citizens have attended recent school board meetings and budget workshops to oppose the elimination of the gifted center.

Karron Myrick said that her family moved to Goochland after researching counties throughout the state and chose Goochland because of its quality education.

“We have so much to offer, and so much to be proud of,” Myrick said of Goochland. “However, I find the recent budget process confusing and distasteful… I find it hard to accept that one would put Maggie Walker, gifted or any academic program on the first round of a potential cut list. I find it distasteful that the gifted [program] is brought up every time that the budget is discussed.”

The county would save $32,000 by reducing Goochland’s participation with the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, Underwood said.

Currently, 16 Goochland students attend Maggie Walker, which offers higher-level courses for advanced students. Underwood’s proposal would eliminate the four open positions available next year for upcoming freshmen.

Maggie Walker currently accepts students from 12 localities in central Virginia, and some parents are worried that once Goochland gives up its four positions at the school, they will never again be available.

“There is not any other program offered to the students of Goochland County that can even compare to the educational opportunity provided by Maggie Walker,” said GCPS parent Nancy Ashley.

Maggie Walker was listed as one of the top “public elite” schools in the United States by Newsweek magazine.

Eliminating programs that nurture Goochland’s best and brightest seemed to be the worst idea for Scott Turner, who moved to the county 12 years ago.

“You can’t take the gifted kids and put them back where they don’t belong,” he said. “They have to be with each other so they can have a fair education. Just like if someone was slow, you have to make sure that they’re taken care of.”

The federal government mandates that school divisions serve disadvantaged students, but it does not mandate gifted programs.

Nonetheless, Turner and others said that Goochland has built a solid educational program, and eliminating the center-based gifted program would be a step backwards for the division.

Other citizens suggested that no instructional program be cut, and that the division needed to address higher-income employees.

“I would like to know how many people from central office will be taking salary cuts, or losing their job,” said Jo D. Hosken, a parent of children at the gifted center. “If you can tell us where the administration is making cuts other than the two-day furlough, I’d be ever so appreciative.”

Goochland resident Dave Hollis recommended eliminating one of the assistant principal jobs from the high school to prevent teachers from losing jobs.

In an interview, Underwood said that the administration is already streamlined and is much smaller compared to neighboring divisions.

School board members expressed to the citizens that the budget-making process requires public input, and that none of the proposed cuts have been implemented.

The schools’ budget will be presented to the county on Feb. 2, after another three-week extension was granted.

The school board met on Dec. 8, after press time, to prioritize potential areas for saving. The school board’s proposed budget is scheduled for a public hearing on Dec. 15.

Katie Shedden has already said her piece.

 

– Published in the December 10, 2009 edition of The Central Virginian

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Goochland schools take another hit from state

Goochland schools were hit with another financial blow last week, when state officials slashed nearly $200,000 from this year’s budget.

“They’ve eliminated all of the textbook funding,” said Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools, as she addressed the school board on Dec. 22. “Which is ironic, because we just had a textbook adoption approved [on Dec. 15].”

Underwood added that she was working with staff to see if the school would be able to purchase the books that were recently adopted.

“[Eliminating the textbooks] was a complete surprise,” said Lynne Venter, director of finance and operations for Goochland County Public Schools. “No one anticipated that because most [school divisions] have already spent their textbook money.”

State officials recommended that Goochland use the $300,000 in savings it received from the Virginia Retirement System, but the division has already allocated that money to cover this year’s local revenue shortfall.

“It’s very common when the governor’s budget comes out in December to adjust the current year’s budget,” Venter said. “However, it is unusual to see the kinds of reductions we did see in the caboose budget.”

The division’s textbook fund was $58,378 before the state cut it to zero. State funding for textbooks was reduced by $79.6 million across the commonwealth.

Venter added that sales tax revenues were down nearly $130,000 through October.

“We did prepare for that,” Venter told the school board, noting that the school division’s budget projected sales tax revenues to decrease by $100,000 this year.

Underwood added that a large portion of state funding comes from lottery sales, which are unpredictable.

“If we’re going to include [lottery funds] in our revenue,” Underwood said, “we’re going to be extremely cautious about being confident that that money’s actually going to come.”

Lottery-funded programs that were hit with budget reductions include at-risk programs and the Virginia Preschool Initiative–a program which is slated for elimination from the school division’s budget next year.

Goochland schools are scheduled to receive an additional $50,000 from lottery sales this year, but that money is tied to the construction fund.

Other state cuts came to direct-aid and career and technical programs, Venter said. State officials also removed all inflationary figures from its budget, something which Venter added is uncommon.

2010-2011 Budget

Next year’s school budget was also affected by the new state revenue projections, which decreased the division’s proposed budget by nearly $80,000. The state also eliminated its funding for technology hardware replacement to Goochland schools, leaving no money for new routers, switches and equipment upgrades.

The school board has met six times during the past two months, trying to accommodate the $2.9 million budget reduction request by the county administration.

At the Dec. 15 public hearing, the school board decided to cut $750,000 from next year’s budget. A revised version presented on Dec. 22 would cut $946,000.

“We still have a ways to go,” Underwood said, noting that nearly $2 million was left to reach the county’s benchmark.

“I have to recommend to you that you go back into the kinds of things that we’ve talked about for reductions,” Underwood told the school board, “and consider making additional reductions.”

Originally, Underwood had recommended cutting $1.5 million,  but the school board chose to keep programs such as the center-based gifted program and participation with Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. The school board also rejected the staggered-start school day.

Although the superintendent had originally recommended eliminating 10 teaching positions, the school board chose to cut three through attrition.

But everything is back on the table, and Underwood has also proposed cutting an additional clerical position and increasing next year’s furlough days from two to five for full-time employees, which would equal a 2.5 percent salary reduction.

Underwood added that the school division saves roughly $50,000 per furlough day.

“My perception is we will have to have additional cuts,” said Chairman Raymond Miller, District 2 school board member. “My personal preference is liberal use of the furlough provision.”

Other school board members agreed with Miller’s suggestion.

“We’ve got to maintain instruction,” said Jim Haskell (District 1). “How we do that and keep all our teachers, I don’t know.”

Insurance costs

Underwood also proposed that the school division look at alternative insurance programs as a means to save money.

“What we’ve been asked to look at,” Underwood said, “is, would we reduce, county-wide, our health insurance costs, if the county and schools went back together again.”

For years, the county and the school division shared health insurance. Three years ago, the schools separated and were able to save $500,000, Underwood said.

This year, the division switched to United Health Care, after its former provider indicated a cost increase of 39 percent. The switch enabled the division to save nearly $300,000.

Given public outcry concerning the budget and insurance costs, Underwood recommended the school board consider “some of those more non-traditional kinds of health insurance options that are becoming more available.”

The school board has only one more meeting before voting on its proposed budget on Jan. 26.

– Published in the December 31, 2009 edition of The Central Virginian.

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