By MIKE WILLIAMS
The Pulaski County School Board on Wednesday grudgingly approved a $64.9 million budget for the 2022-23 school year – a budget that does not include $446,000 for 19 paraprofessionals for the county’s kindergarten classes.
The budget revenue includes $32.3 million in state funds – $3.4 million more than the current year, as well as just over $16 million in county funds – $10,000 above this year. Far less than the $914,294 requested by the school board.
While the new budget does not include money for the kindergarten paraprofessionals, it does provide funds for nearly all of the school board’s other budget priorities.
Included in the budget are four new positions added this year including a third Cougar Assistant at the high school, a transportation manager, public relations specialist and a rotating school nurse.
It also provides $1.5 million for a new teacher salary scale incorporating a 5 percent pay increase for teachers plus a step increase.
Support staff will receive a 5 percent pay increase and custodians gain a new salary scale and increase.
Bus drivers will see their pay rise from a minimum of $80.36 a day to $90 and the top rate rises from $114.93 per day to $130.
Paraprofessionals will have a new salary scale and gain full-time status, with retirement and health insurance.
A new EMT teacher will be added along with an elementary gifted teacher, and a teacher will be added at Snowville Elementary due to enrollment increase. However, two elementary specialist teachers will not be added.
An additional assistant principal position at Pulaski County Middle School was not funded, however, it will be created through attrition, as will a full-time activities director at the school.
The public relations budget – to produce and mail newsletters – was funded at a reduced level – from $47,000 to $32,935.
The budget also provides $445,690 for a Chromebook replacement program for at least three grades beginning next year.
But despite so many of their priorities being funded, school officials see cause for concern in the future.
One such concern was outlined by Chris Stafford, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, about funding future pay raises.
Stafford explained the state provided a compensation supplement for raises for the 2022-23 budget, as well as the following year in 2023-24. However, the state will provide little or no additional funds in Basic Aid to cover the local match required to receive the supplement the second year in 2023-24. That means the school board will have to ask the county to provide more funding to match the supplement in order to provide employee raises.
“I just wanted to get that out here now,” Stafford said. “It sets up a bad situation next year because we’re going to have to ask for even more funding to be able to just provide raises [in 2023-24].”
Stafford noted two areas of additional funding by the county besides its $16 million contribution.
One is $417,105 the county has budgeted for the school system’s Capital Fund. These are funds that were previously earmarked for school debt service.
Due to an agreement struck two years ago by the school board and board of supervisors, when school debt is retired, the payments are given to the school system for capital improvement needs.
Another up to $904,294 is being made available by the county as an “operational reserve.” That funding is supposed to come from cigarette tax revenues.
“At this time, it is unclear if or how these funds can be used for school operating budget needs, or will they be deposited into the school capital fund,” Stafford stated.
School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers said the school system has a “really solid plan” with the county for school capital needs.
“We’re going to be able to do a whole lot with that plan. It’s great and there’s nothing else like it in Southwest Virginia,” Siers said. “We are very appreciative of that.”
“But,” he said, “we don’t have adequate contributions for our operating funds. We’ve had to piece them together each year to keep giving raises and to stay competitive with our neighbors in regard to employee salaries.
“What Chris is saying is that next year, if the county can’t contribute a greater percentage over the required matching funds, we’re probably not going to be able to do raises next year (2023-24).
“Each year we go with level funding … the state funding increase is great, but if the county doesn’t contribute their portion likewise, it’s pushing us closer to a fiscal cliff we’re about to fall off sometime in the next few years if something doesn’t break lose on that end,” Siers said.
“We have to figure out how we’re going to continue to operate and that becomes more difficult for us to remain competitive unless we can get additional local funds.”
Vice Chairman Tim Hurst said the school system right now is, “capital rich and operations poor.”
He asked Stafford to explain why money for Chromebook replacement is being taken out of operations rather than capital funds, as has been suggested, noting the amount for Chromebooks is about the same as the amount needed for the kindergarten paraprofessionals.
Stafford responded that Chromebooks are not considered capital “in the true sense of the word.”
“We track them, we put bar codes on them, but we don’t depreciate them,” he said, noting there are about 4,000 Chromebooks used by the school system.
He praised the school capital fund agreement reached by the school board and board of supervisors as “a wonderful thing to set up.”
However, Stafford added, “I guess the suggestion that we use the capital fund for recurring expenses, gives me as a financial practitioner great pause.”
“In my mind the capital fund is really meant to address true capital projects in our school system and, as we know, we have a huge list of them,” Stafford said.
School officials also expressed uncertainty about how the cigarette funds the county refers to as an “operational reserve” can be used.
“We need more clarification on the cigarette tax money before a decision could be made,” said Chairman Dr. Paige Cash on whether the revenue could be considered operating revenue.
Also on Wednesday, the school board voted 4-0 with one abstention to approve Friday, July 1 as an additional holiday for employees.
The board also voted 5-0 to approve a 5 percent salary increase for Dr. Siers.
According to his contract, Dr. Siers is to receive the same salary increase approved for instructional personnel in the school system.
The increase pushes his annual salary to $156,385.