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School Personnel Cuts Possible

Halifax County School Board members got their first good look at budget numbers Thursday night during their budget workshop, and what they saw is a shortfall in state funding ranging from just over $3 million to over $3.7 million.

The board is considering non-personnel reductions that would save the school system over $2 million and personnel cuts that could number more than two dozen.

According to data provided by the school system’s Chief Financial Officer Bill Covington, the house of delegates’ version of the budget leaves Halifax County Public Schools short by $3,726,599 in state funding, while the senate’s version of the budget leaves a revenue shortfall of $3,050,068 for the local school system.

“The senate version of the budget is the best one for Halifax County,” said Superintendent of Schools Paul Stapleton. “But the final figures will probably be somewhere between the house and senate versions.”

The school board must adopt a budget and present it to the board of supervisors by April 1, but everything hinges upon the level of state funding the school system will receive.

“We may have figures by the middle of March,” said Stapleton. “We’ve never lost state revenue to this magnitude ever in the history of this state, and there are just too many ‘iffy’ things.” 

Covington said each house in the General Assembly has treated public education differently. The house of delegates gives no lottery money to Halifax County Public Schools, Covington said. The house is funding some things from lottery money it previously funded from the state coffers, he added.

Also, the house gives nothing to the school system for enrollment loss, at-risk, early reading intervention, at-risk four-year-olds (pre-k) and technology.
The house version includes $823,123 in a lottery block grant that the school system can use to apply wherever it is needed in the categories of at-risk, early reading intervention and the pre-k program.

The senate version includes $79,285 in lottery funding. It also includes $72,084 for enrollment loss, $891,017 for at-risk, $94,748 for early reading intervention, $535,198 for at-risk four-year-olds and $284,000 for technology.

Both versions of the budget allow localities that are hurt by reversion of the Local Composite Index to “hold harmless” some or all of the amount from this year. The house version of the budget allows 80 percent of the composite index to be frozen for one year at the current level for those localities hurt by reversion. That amounts to $1,189,674 for Halifax County Public Schools for this year.

The senate version of the budget provides a composite index hold harmless rate of 100 percent for two years for those localities that would be hurt by unfreezing the composite index. That amounts to $1,487,093 for the local school system for each year of the biennial state budget.

The total amount of state funding provided for Halifax County Public Schools in the house budget is $33,889,855, and the amount of funding in the senate budget is $35,281,864. Both are down considerably from the $40,397,173 the local school system is receiving from the state this fiscal year.

Both versions of the budget make up some of the funding difference in the rate of expenditures the local school system pays to the Virginia Retirement System. Under the house version, the school system would pay $2,780,718 less to the VRS, and under the senate version, the school system would pay $2,065,240 less to the VRS.

The lower rate for the amount the school system pays to VRS is due to the new retirement rules for all employees hired after July 1 of this year, according to Covington. Those future employees would be entitled to less in retirement benefits than current employees, he explained. School divisions and other state agencies will save money this way, he said.

“It’s on the back of the future employees,” Covington said.

Stapleton reiterated the changes in VRS benefits do not affect those already employed by the school system, just new employees hired after this coming July 1.

Deputy Superintendent Larry Clark said the average final compensation that determines pension is currently based on the employee’s highest 36 months of income. “They’re anticipating changing that to the highest 60 months of income,” Clark said, regarding new employees hired after July 1.

Also, current employees can retire with full benefits if they are at least 50 years of age and have a minimum of 30 years of service. For those new employees hired after July 1 it would change to a combined age and years of service that would combine to total at least 90. For example, that could be 60 years of age and 30 years service, or 55 years of age and 35 years of service, or any other combination that totals 90 or more, Clark explained.

Under expenditures, Covington presented a list of non-personnel reductions that would reduce the budget shortfall by a total of $2,055,123. Under the house version of the budget, that would leave an additional $1,671,476 in reductions needed, Covington said. Under the senate version, it would leave additional needed reductions totaling $994,945.

Covington explained the non-personnel reductions would be for the short-term only and would not be permanent. Those reductions are as follows: professional improvement-$200,250; travel for instructional personnel-$30,000; instructional materials and supplies-$200,000; library books, supplies and periodicals-$53,561; textbooks-$340,000; governor’s school-$75,000; at-risk four-year-old program-$116,312; administrative office supplies-$20,000; administrative travel-$10,000; vehicle and power equipment fuel-$100,000; replacement of motor vehicles-$40,000; repairs and maintenance-$65,000; contracted maintenance-$175,000; heating services-$75,000; replacement of machinery and equipment-$10,000; purchase of original machinery and equipment-$75,000; technology initiative-$400,000; school food-service equipment-$70,000.

Covington explained there is still money left in these categories after these cuts, but these amounts represent significant cuts.

Covington said if all other cuts came only from personnel, the school system would have to cut approximately 33 positions to make up the $1,671,476 based on the house version of the budget, based on an average of $50,000 per position. The school system would have to cut approximately 20 positions to make up the $994,945, based on the senate version. 

Clark said with the retirement incentives the school board approved at its February meeting, school officials hope natural attrition in the system will cause them not to be forced to lay off that many people.

“I think it’s important to remember that we’ve got to see a reduction in personnel costs that causes us to balance the budget,” Clark said.

“If we go back to the house version, which I believe we’re probably going to have to work closer to, and if you approve this $2,055,123, then I think what we’re looking at is we have 33 positions we’re going to have to eliminate before July 1,” Stapleton said.

Over the past two years, the school system has lost 61 jobs to attrition. “You’re looking at 33 more positions that would have to go away to make the budget balance unless we look at other areas you haven’t discussed yet,” the superintendent explained.

Covington explained the amount the school system pays on employee health insurance would remain constant. Employees would pay the amount of any increase in health insurance premiums. Also, for the second straight year there would be no salary increases for any employee and also no new bus purchases.

Stapleton said the state has changed the school bus replacement cycle from 10 years to 12 years, and now the general assembly is looking to change the bus replacement cycle to 15 years. He warned the school system would have to make major bus purchases in the coming years.

“We’re the best managed state, we’re also broke,” Stapleton said. “That’s the reason for the first time you’re seeing a major shift in fiscal responsibility from the state of Virginia to the locality.”

The school board went into executive session to discuss personnel, but it took no action on personnel or the non-personnel reductions when it reconvened in open session.

The board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on Wednesday, March 17, to get input on its budget. The hearing is slated to begin at 7 p.m. in public meeting room of the Mary Bethune Complex, and the public is invited.