School board, supervisors agree on raises, but question is how to pay for them

Both the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors and School Board favor providing 5 percent raises to teachers along with step increases, 5 percent raises for support staff as well as a new pay scale for custodians.

They just differ on how to pay for all of it.

The two boards met Monday night in a joint meeting to review the school board’s $534,000 request for additional funding for next school year, and the county’s plan to address the school system’s funding needs.

Board members and staff from both the school system and county kicked the issue back and forth for nearly two hours, with tempers even flaring a time or two.

At the end of the meeting, held as part of the supervisors’ work on the 2021-22 fiscal year county budget, nothing was decided for sure.

However, the supervisors are in favor of a plan to provide the school system level funding of $15,507,134 – the same as the current school year.

The county is proposing the $534,000 needed for teacher raises and step increases; raises for support staff and a new pay scale for custodians come from funds set aside by the school board for five new school buses. The county is recommending the school board instead use capital improvement funds to buy the five buses. Doing that would lessen the amount of funds available for capital improvement projects, meaning the school system must delay some capital projects it had planned to do in the next year.

The county argued that an unknown amount of additional funding would be available to the school system later from revenue generated by a tobacco tax after July 1 and a carryover of unused school funds from the current year. Carryover funds are returned to the school system each year for capital improvement projects, as part of a 10-year capital plan agreed to last year by both boards.

School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers told the gathering he believes the strategy proposed by the supervisors sets the school system up for problems in the future, “Because we’re not funding operations like they need to be funded.”

“We’d be switching stuff around, borrowing from here to meet it this year, shifting something else from operations to capital next year. It’s a shell game,” Siers said.

County Administrator Jonathan Sweet disagreed.

“It’s not a shell game when you’re (school system) getting $3.6 million (Federal grant) you didn’t plan for last year. I know it has restrictions and guidelines, but the capital plan also builds revenue in the latter years and continues to build guaranteed income,” Sweet said.

Plus, he noted the school system is receiving over $1 million in additional state funding for their budget, $640,000 from the first year of the capital plan, $52,000 more in operations [proposed by the county to go to the school system from reductions in county health insurance costs], “not to mention the carryover.”

“Right now, the money we know we can count on for capital projects is going to be eaten up almost entirely to purchase school buses if that’s the route that is taken with level funding,” Siers said.

“The main thing is teachers get their raise and their step increase and the pay scale for custodians,” Sweet said.

“We’re willing to help the school system find solutions to accomplish all of their objectives for this fiscal year, for next fiscal year and beyond,” Sweet assured.

Supervisors Chairman Joe Guthrie noted that he believes the plan leaves “plenty of room for a very ambitious capital improvement project agenda for the year,” with some projects begun in one year and finished in the next.

The supervisors will continue their budget work over the coming weeks with a new budget needed to be approved by the end of June.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot