School, county officials clash over support for education

School, county officials clash over support for education

By MIKE WILLIAMS

The Patriot

School Board Chairman Dr. Paige Cash and Vice Chairman Tim Hurst used the public comment period of Monday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors to defend a request for $1.6 million in new county funding for schools. The defense ended with an assault on the Board of Supervisors for what school officials view as a lack of support for education.

“We’re not here to have a debate or argue a point,” Hurst said to open his statements. “We’ve had a history in Pulaski County, especially in recent years that the two boards don’t get along.”

Hurst noted the school budget request in new funding from the county is approximately $1.6 million this year, in addition to $2.7 million in projected additional state revenue.

“Most of the budget request is to provide a 5 percent raise for faculty and staff as well as providing a more competitive salary scale for custodians and bus drivers. The total cost of these is close to $2.7 million by itself,” Hurst said.

He noted that at last week’s county budget meeting, the comment was made that “the additional funding from the state would meet most of our budget priorities without additional county funding.”

“That’s simply not the case,” Hurst stated.

He explained that part of the state’s $2.7 million additional funding includes a compensation settlement of $900,000.

“To receive that $900,000, Pulaski County must match that request. The Board of Supervisors must match that request. Otherwise, we don’t receive that $900,000.

“Without the county match, the school system would be required to reallocate county funds to satisfy the match – in other words a reduction of $900,000.”

“Two other larger items on our budget include providing paraprofessionals in every kindergarten classroom as well as create a replacement cycle for the Chromebooks used by our students.

“Those requests along with the salary requests alone make up approximately 81 percent of our budget.

“In regard to carryover funds, carryover funds in Pulaski County Schools typically run between one and one and a half-percent of our yearly budget. That number has been inflated some over the last couple years due to the pandemic. A typical year, it can range from $200,000 to $700,000. While that sounds like a lot of money, in a budget of $60 million plus its really not that much at all,” Hurst contended.

For instance, he said, if an HVAC system goes bad in a school “that’s a million-dollar HVAC system. The division has to save up money to handle that cost. That money comes from the carryover funds,” he said.

Hurst recalled that in 2013 the Board of Supervisors and School Board adopted a policy to allow the school system to keep carryover money for use on capital projects.

“Two years ago, the boards again signed a resolution agreeing to allow monies from expiring debt service to also go to capital to pay for unexpected expenses, and we very much appreciate that.

“The purpose for this money is to pay for one-time expenses, not to pay for regular operational expenses such as salaries or replacement cycles such as what we wish to establish with the Chromebooks,” he said.

Then Hurst brought up county revenues.

“From fiscal year 2016 through 2020, the county’s revenue has grown from $50 million to $59 million – a 4.34 percent increase per year. This does not include fiscal year 2021 which ended last June 30th which will reflect the new reassessment rates.

“I feel certain the county’s increase in revenue in fiscal year 2021 will be substantial,” Hurst said.

In the same period, he said, the appropriation for schools has averaged an increase of 2.2 percent per year compared to 4.3 percent for the county.

“By comparison and reviewing the county’s audit for 2020, if you look at the years of 2010 – 2015, actual school expenses average 3.98 percent increase per year. That’s what was actually spent for public education and schools in Pulaski County,” Hurst said.

“However, over the last five years according to the county audit, that number has dropped from 3.98 percent to 1.14 percent. That’s a drastic decrease, while the county’s revenue has grown by 4.34 percent.

“Required local effort is a report from Virginia Department of Education to the General Assembly and is considered by educators to be a valid indicator of the value placed on public education by the localities, as well as the school system’s ability to compete with other divisions.

“In this report you’ll see by reasonable comparison from fiscal year 2019 to 2021, the regional data including school divisions that are adjacent to Pulaski County that contain high schools that are a part of the River Ridge District – as these are the schools that our students compete with on a regular basis – and you’ll notice in this report the required local effort for Pulaski County has dropped from 70 percent of that required local effort in fiscal year 2019 to 54 percent in 2021.

While our neighbor across the bridge has increased from 101 percent to 187 percent. And that’s who we compete with,” Hurst stated.

He continued that Pulaski County is “consistently No. 9 out of 11 in regard to local funding above required local effort. Seven of the 11 divisions, including Pulaski County Schools have seen a downward trend in their percentages of funding above the required local effort during the pandemic.”

“As elected officials of Pulaski County, we should all ask ourselves what message are we sending not only to our citizens, but to those whom we wish to attract to Pulaski County,” Hurst said.

“Madame Chairman, I know you and the board as well as the School Board are dedicated public servants to Pulaski County, but this is something we can’t and shouldn’t be proud of – this funding of Pulaski County schools.

“Pulaski County kids and certainly Pulaski County employees deserve every bit as much as the folks across the river,” Hurst said.

Hurst’s comments did not go without a response from County Administrator Jonathan Sweet.

“In quoting where revenues have gone, we fail to mention that a large portion of those revenues – approximately $3.2 million a year – is going to service debt on the new middle school … a $49 million middle school,” Sweet said.

“So that wasn’t mentioned in respect to this new county revenue.”

Sweet said the county has had an increase in percentage of new revenue.

“We’ve also had a $3.2 million increase in service of debt for schools. So, the sum total of operations, debt service and carryover of capital funding has to be considered.”

“All of these school divisions haven’t just built a new middle school. The $3.2 million worth of debt service could have been spent on school operations. But it was the prerogative of this community – and I think the right choice of this community – to invest $3.2 million in debt service in a 21st century learning environment. So that has to be part of the equation.

“As far as HVACs going out, in the Board of Supervisors’ wisdom, we adopted jointly by resolution a capital funding plan, so we don’t have to rely on carryover funds when the HVAC goes out.

“The carryover was an average of $695,000 a year for the last five years, not counting last year. With last year’s included, it was right at $600,000. So, the School Board doesn’t have to rely on $600,000 anymore to fix an HVAC. They can rely on the capital funding plan to do just that,” Sweet explained.

“We can look at statistics, but I think it is critically important that the community understands the holistic cost of education and its debt service, which are investments in 21st century learning environments, capital funding plans to support the HVACs going out and the future needs of the high school that was the prerogative of the Board of Supervisors, as well as operations.

“It’s important to look at it holistically.

“I would be happy to put forward a presentation on figures, on carryover – all of those things. There was no request to be on the agenda tonight by our friends at the school system. We could have been better prepared,” Sweet said, noting he was “somewhat surprised these types of reports and presentations were made in public comment without the ability for us to respond.”

Never-the-less he said, it is important to look holistically at everything.

“The citizens of Pulaski County invest in education,” he said.

“Yes, county revenues increased – they needed to increase because we serviced $3.2 million in new debt, and we needed revenue to do that. Those very important factors aren’t included anywhere in conversations.

“The board has requested of the school board – what are your priorities? There’s $4.2 million in requests, $2.75 minimum in new revenue from the House of Delegates, and there’s a capital improvement plan to support things like Chromebooks,” Sweet said.

“And perhaps for the first time we’re seeing them (School Board) use vacancy saving funds to hire new positions with effectively what would have been carryover, and then asking for the money again next year. Almost a double-dipping on requests,” Sweet charged.

Sweet said statements on social media say the county has the resources to fund the additional amount of funding requested by the school system due to increased revenues because of reassessment.

But he said people making those assumptions are not taking into account inflation.

“The county uses a 2 percent inflation index, and the country has had 8.5 percent inflation as of March going back a year creating a situation in which the county would have a surplus in revenue for three years and then a deficiency for three years,” Sweet said.

He continued that raising student headcount in the school system is where new funding can come from.

He said the school system will see an “anomalous” year next year in receiving $9.1 million additional funds from federal ESSER funding related to COVID that takes care of a lot of its capital needs.

“All the CARES money it will receive and a minimum $2.75 million additional from the state. There’s been an influx, this once in a score – perhaps once in a lifetime – influx of funding to the school system.”

“What are the priorities [of the school system],” Sweet asked. “Webster will define priorities as what ranks most important and you go down from there. Everything can’t be a priority.  I’m excited to hear because it could mean – if it’s the prerogative of the school board, that $2.75 million additional from the state is going to be invested in the paraprofessionals (for kindergarten classes).”