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Legislator hears officials' concerns

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Shenandoah County officials shared with a state legislator this week their worries about retirement costs and other issues ahead of the General Assembly session next month.

County government and school representatives met with Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, on Thursday to convey their concerns. Gilbert also tried to belay their fears about what may or may not come to pass through this year's legislative session. The county had invited state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, but he could not attend the board's annual meeting with legislators.

Superintendent Jeremy Raley talked about a potential 2.84-percent increase in what the school system must pay into the Virginia Retirement System that would cost the division approximately $1 million. Raley noted that the General Assembly has a goal to fully fund the retirement system by a certain year. The superintendent asked Gilbert if the legislature could consider extending that goal and lessening the impact on the school division.

"I've seen the million-dollar figure and that's staggering for any locality of this size and we're mindful of that," Gilbert said.

What comes out of discussions ahead of the legislative sessions often changes by the end, Gilbert said. But knowing the concerns of the local government and school division early on does help, Gilbert said.

"Don't fret about the numbers you're hearing just yet is what I'm telling you and we'll see what happens," Gilbert said.

Supervisors Chairman Conrad Helsley mentioned that, while the Virginia Retirement System remains insolvent, the agency gave more than 40 employees bonuses this past summer at a cost of $4.1 million.

"To me, when you're this insolvent, you don't give bonuses," Helsley said.

Gilbert said Helsley made a valid point but noted that he also heard the fiscal management experts who provide a service for the state could make more money in the private sector.

Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli asked Gilbert if local boards have the ability to push mandated increases in retirement contributions on to the employees. The General Assembly's most recent action, which came in the 11th hour, required the local governments and school divisions to give employees pay raises to offset increased contributions to the retirement system.

Gilbert reminded leaders that the legislature in recent years gave local governments the opportunity to pass on the retirement contribution increases to the employees, but Shenandoah County declined.

But Gilbert voiced doubts the state would let local governments and school systems make workers cover their own retirement costs without help from the taxpayers.

"I don't see any viable avenue by which the General Assembly is gonna put anybody in a position of having to make people have less take-home pay at the end of the day," Gilbert said.

The legislator was quick to note that it's too early to tell where the issue would go this year. Gilbert said he didn't want to see a situation that would cause the jurisdiction to cut staff, but he didn't rule out imposing requirements on new employees.

Supervisor David Ferguson asked Gilbert if he envisioned the state switching from a pension system to 401(k) plans that allow workers to manage their own retirement savings. Ferguson said government employees give at least twice as much of their income into the state system as do workers in the private sector.

Gilbert said he supports an ongoing effort to make the state pension system more closely resemble those in the private sector, at least for new employees. Whether that push has enough support remains uncertain, Gilbert said.

School Board member Kathryn G. Holsinger told Gilbert that the Shenandoah County system "has nowhere else to cut" and that spending reductions have affected maintenance and instruction.

"[S]taff is stressed to the limit because they're overworked," Holsinger said.

Gilbert said he understands the school system's concerns.

Raley also asked Gilbert if the legislature might reconsider implementing a new grading system for schools. Raley pointed out that the new A-F rating system would not take into account many of the county division's achievements and successes.

Gilbert acknowledged that an interest exists for revisiting and possibly revising the grading scale for schools but he doesn't know if there will be a delay in implementing the new system.

"I think that we assess and grade our children every day on their performance and we do it through grades," Gilbert said. "We should ask no less of those who are teaching them to be assessed and compared and so forth because I think that incentivizes excellence just like when your child comes home with a B and you say you can do better. That said we realize there are flaws in that legislation."

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

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