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Boards discuss schools' future, possible cuts

By Alex Bridges

MOUNT JACKSON -- Shenandoah County schools could expect to lose at least $1 million next year if the state retirement system calls for more local money, officials said Monday.

That size of a budget cut came up late in a discussion between the School Board and the Board of Supervisors during a meeting at Triplett Tech. However, financial numbers remain uncertain until the General Assembly begins working on the state's next spending plan.

Superintendent Jeremy Raley provided supervisors with information about the school system's ongoing efforts to plan for the future. Raley updated supervisors on the push to rise and meet its goals.

"We're perfectly poised to head in the same trajectory, the same direction this year as we have in the past," Raley said. "But without any change we'll end up, over time, in the same place."

Later in the meeting, as the boards talked about capital projects and finances, Raley said the county's composite index -- a tool used by the state to determine school funding -- decreased slightly. That change might help the division receive more money from the state, Raley said. The division will need that money to help offset a potential increase in what the system will have to spend to cover employees' retirement, Raley said.

The division's rate for what it pays into the Virginia Retirement System is expected to increase 2.8 percent, Raley said. This reflects a 24 percent increase in what the division currently pays and approximately $1 million the school system must spend in the next fiscal year, Raley said.

"So we can only hope the General Assembly can do something to help offset that cost," Raley said. "The General Assembly currently says it wants to fully fund the VRS over the course of the next six years."

"With regard to continuing to improve and do what's in the best interest of our students, it's difficult to do that when you're faced with such a large expenditure before you get out of the gates," Raley added.

The superintendent noted that the county government likely faces the same financial burden.

Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli told the boards that a proposal in the senate calls for local jurisdictions to pick up the entire remaining cost of funding teacher pensions. The issue came up during the recent annual Virginia Association of Counties conference, Baroncelli said. The supervisor pointed out that the school system could see the additional cost far exceed $1 million should the proposal go forward. But with the retirement system underfunded by approximately 20 percent, Raley said to cover the gap would cost the school division more than $4 million.

"You're already starting a million in the hole by what the General Assembly has done to the localities or pushed back to the localities and then on top of it take off four million -- it's not reasonable, it's not reality," Baroncelli said.

Supervisor David Ferguson asked Raley if the division could absorb the $1 million in its operating budget and maintain the current level of spending. Raley said the reduction would likely affect the division's staff.

"You can't strategically abandon a million dollars from a school-division budget that's already running a million, two million tight," Raley said. "When 85 percent of your budget is personnel-driven -- the other things associated with your budget are turning your lights on, running the school buses and keeping the facilities clean -- there aren't other places to go to find a million dollars and reduce costs."

School Board member Richard Koontz Jr. said cutting $1 million would be a big task for any division.

Discussions and a presentation by Raley earlier in the meeting focused on the division's strategic planning efforts. As the boards went into talking about the financial outlook, Raley said the division faces difficult decisions ahead and needs to determine its priorities about what remains important to the system and the community.

Raley touted the school system's action planning team. More than 120 people from the community make up the team formed over the summer and its work focuses on the goals created by the School Board. The team includes business owners, School Board members, teachers, staff and students.

Earlier in the meeting, Baroncelli had asked Raley who makes up the team and if anyone in the group had spoken at previous public hearings telling supervisors they needed to reduce spending on the school system. Raley responded by saying the team represented "a pretty diverse group of individuals."

People who called for reduced school funding would learn about the division's financial future by serving on the team, Baroncelli noted later.

"I think the concern is 'will my work be in vain? I dedicate two hours a night for the next six months and I'm volunteering my time -- is it going to be worth it,'" Raley said. "I think that's something we need to recognize and to value their time and commitment."

Members of both boards also discussed capital improvement programs of the general government and the school division.

The School Board at its meeting Nov. 14 approved the division's capital improvement program that spans the next five years. School officials prioritized the projects using a 24-point scoring system the general government uses with its program, modified to fit the system's education needs.

Koontz commented that the capital improvement program lists projects for the division's future but does not mean that the system plans to build new facilities in the next year or so.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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