Budget proposal prompts review of school-related numbers, dollars

Responding to questions from the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors, Dr. Kevin Siers last week presented a variety of data concerning the school system during a joint meeting of the School Board and supervisors.

Supervisors had earlier submitted a list of questions after they received a school budget proposal in which an additional $1.4 million in school funds were requested for next school year.

Questions centered on numbers of teachers, enrollment loss, salaries and more.

Siers reported that, out of the county’s 356 teachers, 63 percent are residents of Pulaski County. The school system, he said, is the county’s second largest employer with 716 employees – 73 percent of whom live in the county.

School enrollment is vital for the school system, as state revenue is determined by a per pupil formula. Pulaski County is due to receive about $7,500 per student next school year.

According to Siers, school enrollment has steadily declined over the past five years by almost 500 students, beginning with 2013 (4,470 students), 2014 (4,430), 2015 (4,346), 2016 (4,270), 2017 (4,193) and 2018 (4,081).

Siers said school officials had researched why the school system is losing enrollment to the tune of 2 to 3 percent each year. They found, he said, in 2014 and 2015 the county graduated more students the year before than were entering in kindergarten.

“The numbers jump tremendously in 2016, 17 and 18,” Siers explained, noting one-third of the school system’s enrollment loss was due to their not being as many children being born in Pulaski County.

Siers quoted a recent Roanoke Times article in which a Weldon Cooper Center study placed Pulaski County in the top ten of localities  in Virginia where there are more deaths than births with 906 more deaths than births the previous year.

“So the declining birthrate in Pulaski County is the largest contributing factor to our enrollment loss,” Siers said.

Also affecting enrollment, Siers reported, is the rising number of students who are home-schooled.

“The numbers are picking up, but we’re still on the low end compared to school divisions surrounding us,” Siers said.

In the 2017-18 school year, Pulaski County saw 125 students home-schooled – or about 3 percent.

Other localities included Radford 48 (3%), Wythe 148 (3.5%), Bland (27) 3.5%, Carroll (251 (6.25%), Giles 137 (5.3%), Montgomery 538 (5.1%) and Floyd 315 (13.75%).

Cloyd District Supervisor Joe Guthrie interjected that he believes Floyd County has the highest percentage of home-schooled students in the commonwealth.

Siers noted that even though Pulaski County’s percentage of home-schooled students is low, when you start thinking in terms of funding for schools, that’s about $1.3 million in per pupil funding the county doesn’t receive. A little less than three-quarters of that are state funds.

“That is a significant impact on funding,” Siers stated.

Pulaski County, according to Siers’ research, spent on average $10,400 per student in 2017. That ranked fifth among school divisions in the region. Leading the way, Siers said, is Bland at $10,859 per pupil. Followed in order are: Montgomery ($10,674), Carroll ($10,636), Giles ($10,402), Pulaski ($10,400), Radford ($9,866), Floyd ($9,858) and Wythe ($9,762).

According to State Code, the Virginia Department of Education requires each locality to provide adequate local funding in support of the Standards of Quality each year. All school divisions met required local effort in fiscal year 2018, according to the state.

Siers reported that Pulaski County provided 72 percent more than was required in 2017-18 – a figure that was 17 percent higher than in 2013-14.

According to Siers, that places Pulaski County “right in the middle” of school divisions in the region. The localities rank like this: Montgomery (103.68% above what is required), Radford (90%), Carroll (89.9%), Bland (82.9%), Pulaski (72%), Giles (68%), Wythe (67.6%), and Floyd (58%).

County Administrator Jonathan Sweet, going back to Siers’ reporting on average per pupil spending, noted that Bland County [which led the region] has no debt service payments dedicated to education.

“A lot more money can be dedicated to school operations and per pupil investments if you have zero debt service,” Sweet said, adding that considering debt service for each locality gives a truer picture of what each locality is investing in public education.

Sweet had his own research, and reported that total local funding for schools, including debt service, has risen 26 percent in the last two years alone – from $17,351,585 in 2017 to $21,792,341 in 2019.

“That’s a substantial improvement from 2017 to 2019,” Sweet stated.

Sweet noted that since 2010 to present, local funding for education (including debt service) has risen 76 percent from $12,407,798 to $21,792,341.

“Pulaski County’s general fund budget has only risen 39 percent in that time,” Sweet said.

He added that in the same period, school operations funding has increased from $10,834,367 to $15,045,674.

“We are going in the right direction and going really fast,” Sweet told the two boards, adding that $22 million in a year for education is “sobering.”

“Debt service has to come from someone,” Supervisors Chairman Andy McCready said. “The taxpayers of this county have obviously come up with the money.”

The School Board will hold yet another work session on its budget on Tuesday, April 16 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss alternatives for covering their $1.4 million budget shortfall.

Options to consider include a reduction in force, shifting funds that are designated for vehicle/bus replacement to cover personnel expenses, and reducing or eliminating some of the School Board’s budget priorities.