By MIKE WILLIAMS
The Pulaski County School Board says it will need a “significant increase” in local school funding to keep the county from falling behind its neighboring school divisions in employee salaries.
The school board has held two budget work sessions on its Fiscal Year 2024 budget during the past two weeks, with an almost total focus on employee salaries.
School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers told the board the school system is in the same position it was last year.
In Fiscal Year 2023 – the current school year – the state provided a compensation supplement of over a million dollars toward the cost of providing employees with a 5 percent pay raise.
The same is being offered again for the next school year – Fiscal Year 2024.
However, like 2023, to qualify for the million dollars in state compensation supplement money, Pulaski County would have to pay in the neighborhood of $800,000 in local match money.
The state is also offering funding to partially fund a one-time 1 percent retention bonus for employees. The state will provide $157,289 of the $317,099 total cost of the bonus, with the school system required to match with $159,810.
“We used every state dollar to give raises (in 2023). There is no way we can do that this year, there is no extra state money,” Siers told the school board.
“So if it’s not funded locally, we won’t be able to do it.”
Chris Stafford, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Business Operations, told the school board this year’s situation was predicted.
“We said last year, that this was setting us up for a bad situation the following year,” Stafford reminded.
Siers told the board that last year some neighboring school divisions actually exceeded the 5 percent in pay raises for their employees – with one giving 10 percent.
“If we cannot give it (5 percent), assuming the others around us do, we’ll be much further behind than what we are now,” he said.
Board member Bill Benson asked, “Any idea what the county (Board of Supervisors) will do?”
“The county hasn’t begun its budget process yet,” responded Stafford, who is in the unique position of not only being employed by the school system, but also serves as the Cloyd District representative on the Board of Supervisors.
“At some point we’re going to fall behind and now we’re here,” Siers stated. “If we can’t a significant increase in local school funding, we are going to fall behind our neighboring school divisions.”
Siers said the school system will not remain competitive for new hires if it falls behind on salaries.
“We have difficulty attracting teachers into Pulaski County right now. If we go a year without giving the same raise everyone else around us gives, we won’t attract any teacher in the county,” Siers said.
“We’re the second largest employer in the county. It’s important we maintain a competitive advantage to recruit and retain our employees,” said board chairman Beckie Cox.
Cox asked what would one of the county’s larger employers face if they couldn’t give raises?
“It’s very important we retain our advantage as the employer we are and be able to keep our employees here,” she added.
Siers noted the school system may actually be the largest employer in terms of employees who live in Pulaski County. “700-some,” he said.
“In order to give raises, we’ll have to have an infusion of $1 million,” Siers said.
Dr. Paige Cash, Robinson District representative, said with all costs for the school system being higher this year, it is unrealistic to receive the same budget as last year.
Complicating the school system’s budget picture is a decline in enrollment.
State funding for the current Fiscal Year 2023 budget is based on an Average Daily Membership of 3,831 students.
For next year – Fiscal Year 2024 – state funding is based on an ADM of only 3,688 – a drop of 143 students.
Stafford reported the drop in ADM in past years had been “manageable,” while the decline for next year is “very significant.”
In a multi-year sample, ADM figures have declined by 37 students from FY 2020 to FY 21; by 44 students from FY 21 to FY 22, and by 23 students from FY 22 to FY 23.
The 143 drop in students reduces state revenues to the county for next year by $771,211.
In response to questions from board members about the enrollment decline, Siers wasn’t sure.
“I thought it might be a case where we had a large graduating class and a small kindergarten class, but this year’s graduating class is around 300 kids. It’s not one of our larger ones,” Siers said.
“It’s something we’ll have to explore,” Siers said.
He noted that the number of students being home-schooled has gone up.
“When we did a study pre-COVID, Pulaski County and Radford were the lowest in our whole region. We were about even with Radford on the percentage of our students who were being home-schooled. And that number has probably close to doubled since then. But I still think we’re at the low end in our region.
It was noted the number of home-schooled students is at 222. Siers said the county was at about 120 pre-COVID.
The 222, it was noted, includes the number of students in private school because it is not yet accredited.
Siers said that number does not include students who have received religious exemption.
“We don’t track them because they don’t have to report to us. We do have quite a few who have done religious exemption,” he added.
All the budget figures discussed in the two work sessions are not final, and won’t be until the General Assembly completes its budget work in the coming weeks.