Salaries top budget concerns for Warren County schools

FRONT ROYAL – With budget meetings lined up in coming months, the Warren County School Board began discussions by prioritizing pay increases at its February meeting and subsequent budget work session.

Ressie Jeffries Elementary School teacher and Warren County Education Association President Kim Okland addressed the School Board during the budget public hearing portion of the meeting about teacher pay. She thanked Superintendent Greg Drescher and the School Board for their support and cooperation with teachers.

“I can tell you that some of my colleagues from other districts are envious of the positive relationship this School Board shares with its teachers,” she said.

She stressed the importance and positive outcomes of investing in schools and reiterated the significance of Warren County’s median teacher salary rankings according to the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee: When factoring in cost of living, Warren County ranks last in the committee’s 2014 list of 132 Virginia divisions.

“We must support a long-term plan that will show our teachers that we value them by providing competitive compensation,” she said.

With figures presented by Director of Finance Rob Ballentine and Drescher at the budget work session, the board considered budget scenarios and discussed the impacts of different measures to boost salaries by percentage points and by step increases.

As the district has already committed to certain additions – such as adding 10th grade instruction to Mountain Vista Governor’s School – $380,959 must be factored into the budget on top of about $51.9 million in expenditures for the 2017 fiscal year.

Past that, Ballentine’s provided scenarios of adding a 3 percent salary increase and step increases would posit a deficit of up to $970,514. Weighing those concerns with the board’s desire to establish competitive pay rates, those present discussed a 2 percent salary increase and the work involved with reevaluating pay scales to keep increases fair.

“We have to be fair, we have to be competitive – and if we don’t, we’re going to remain at the bottom forever,” said Catherine Bower, board chair.

Many factors could change the numbers in the scenarios presented. Ballentine used figures from the Governor’s School’s proposed budget for projected revenue and said incoming January student enrollment numbers will affect revenue estimates.

Those at the work session said they wanted to be conservative about those estimates, expressing concerns about loss of funding from student enrollment. Drescher mentioned deficits in the past due to losing around 90 students one year, and Ballentine brought up Shenandoah County schools’ spending freeze at the beginning of this school year due to a drop in enrollment and resulting state funding.

Beyond conversation about next year’s budget, Drescher went over estimated costs associated with making Warren County schools competitive with other districts in multiple aspects and bringing support services up to snuff – costs he had organized into a six-year plan.

During the regular meeting, the board adjusted the salaries of some faculty by approving changes to the titles and scales of seven specific positions. Those changes will cost the district $57,474, which comes out of funds set aside for “unforeseen positions needed once the school year begins.”

Almost everyone who spoke at the regular meeting expressed thanks to those who cleaned up snow from the recent winter storm. Drescher noted in his report that the district has missed six days due to the snow and the schools have provided for five in this year’s calendar. Classes will be held on three weather days in March, making spring break last from March 24-28.

Because Warren’s school day is longer, he said the district might be able to absorb the one missed day not accounted for – if snow doesn’t cause more closures. He asked the board to hold off on making any calendar-related decisions until later in the year, when winter weather risks have passed.

During his report, board Vice Chairman Douglas Rosen mentioned a recent meeting of county officials and residents about road blockages at railroad crossings that have delayed bus routes. County Administrator Doug Stanley told the board that he’s waiting on a response from Norfolk Southern Railway about short-term solutions to the issue.

The School Board approved the following:
• A Summer Fine Arts Enrichment Program that will offer eight days of art instruction in four subject areas.
• Financing for an Energy Performance Agreement with Ameresco Inc., which will provide improvement funds for Ressie Jeffries Elementary School.
• A contract with VSBA BoardDocs Pro, a digital documents hosting service.
• A donation of 35 shooting shirts for the Warren County Middle School boy’s basketball program.
• A $500 scholarship started by Arnold Williams Sr. and Phyllis Williams, meant to provide financial aid to a Skyline High School student who needs it to attend Lord Fairfax Community College.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or