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Posted February 19, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Warren County schools budget priorities

By Kim Walter

FRONT ROYAL -- School Board members told the Warren County Board of Supervisors that their main priorities for the 2014-2015 budget would be a 2 percent increase for all employees and hiring teachers to reduce elementary school class sizes.

While the governor's current budget, which hasn't been approved, provides some funding for a 2 percent raise, it doesn't cover all positions in a school system.

Warren County schools would get $273,017 for raises, but Rob Ballentine, the division's finance director, said it would take more to cover the entire system.

"The question is, do you only want to give a raise to certain employees," he said during Tuesday night's joint work session. "To cover everyone, including support staff, you're looking at needing about $600,000."

Superintendent Pamela McInnis mentioned that surrounding school divisions were hoping to include some kind of salary increase in their budgets.

Part of the need for the raises is to make Warren County Public Schools more competitive. McInnis said that the school system's new teacher salary is "very competitive" with neighboring counties, such as Frederick, Shenandoah and Page, as well as Winchester.

However, the division starts to "fall apart" when it gets to the middle tier of teachers who have been educators for around 10 years.

"It's never really been that a teacher doesn't like working here, or doesn't like the students," McInnis said.

New teachers, after a few years, find themselves wanting to move back home or out of state to be with family. McInnis said that a good number of the county's teachers actually live outside the division. Places like Strasburg and Stephens City have housing developments and apartment complex openings which fit a teacher's need.

Board of Supervisors member Daniel Murray said it sounded like Warren County needed to "look at developments and apartments that work for a teacher's salary."

The county could see other slight increases in state funds according to the governor's proposed budget, but McInnis reiterated that "nothing is official." The General Assembly is expected to approve a budget this week.

McInnis said another area that has raised some concern is class sizes at the elementary level. She said some first grade classes are up to 27 or 28 students per class, which is far greater than the board's goal.

She said the target student to teacher ratio in the elementary grades would be 20 to 1.

The board included a proposed increase in average daily membership, since the school system saw a jump of about 90 students at the beginning of the school year. McInnis said as of January, the number had increased again.

The increase was thought to have come from families of workers at a power plant that is under construction in the county, but after researching, Ballentine said it still didn't account for the spike in students.

"We just can't quite put our finger on it," he said.

In the 2014-2015 budget, the School Board called for another 90-student increase, which Ballentine called "conservative."

McInnis said to bring the class size down, the school system would have to hire additional teachers, which in turn calls for added funding.

"Of course, the problem with that is where do we put the teachers?" she asked. "We don't really have the space for more classes."

The school system is in the process of building a second middle school, which would hold 800 students. The new building would allow eighth graders, who are split between the two high schools, to come back to middle school.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Archie Fox asked if the new middle school could take some fifth graders to free up space in the elementary schools, to which some school board members quickly shook their heads.

"It's possible," McInnis said. "If you just want to look at balancing, then that would make sense. But is it the ideal educational configuration? No."

Federal funding could decrease by a little more than $200,000, Ballentine said, but that doesn't include possible additional cuts from sequestration.

"If sequestration happens, we could lose another $176,000," he said.

The decrease isn't as bad as it might be in other counties, McInnis added. She said some school divisions could suffer a loss of millions of dollars.

Over all, the school board has budgeted for $48,862,654 -- a $141,304 increase from last year. Even though the school system did receive a $238,427 surplus from the prior year's budget for 2013-2014, decrease in funding from the county wasn't seen as that.

McInnis said the surplus was a one-time appropriation, so in reality the School Board is asking for the same amount in local funds as it did last year -- $20,130,868.

School Board members will hold other work sessions on the budget, but plan to hold a public hearing prior to submitting a final budget to the Board of Supervisors. They hope to have that done by the later half of March, so that the Board of Supervisors can meet its May 1 deadline.

County Administrator Doug Stanley said, as everything is currently planned, the budget process is "on schedule."

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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