Board to consider flat funding for schools

WOODSTOCK – An effort to keep education funding flat next year has set up a possible showdown among Shenandoah County’s leaders.

The Board of Supervisors held a work session on the proposed fiscal 2017 budget Tuesday to discuss ways to balance the spending plan. Supervisors are also considering increases in the tax rates charged for real estate and personal property.

Chairman Conrad Helsley pointed out during the discussion that it would take four votes to pass a budget that includes an increase. Helsley noted that three members have expressed a desire to maintain the county budget. Supervisors also have scheduled a special meeting and work session for 2 p.m. Tuesday to continue their discussion about the budget. The board is expected to consider action on the proposed budget and tax rates at a special meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The county proposed an increase in the real estate tax rate from 57 cents to 64 cents per $100. The county needs to increase the rate to 60 cents to offset a loss in revenue that came as a result of a decrease in property values determined in the latest reassessment.

Vice Chairman Richard Walker suggested at the Tuesday work session that the county hold the School Board’s local funding for operations at the same level as in the current budget – $25.14 million. That would eliminate the $1.1 million increase requested by the School Board. Walker noted that he was not including the school system’s capital improvement project’s budget.

The student population decreased this year rather than increased even though the county gave more money to the system, Walker said. The supervisor cited 2015 data from the Virginia Department of Education. Shenandoah County also spent the most per pupil among the region’s school systems in 2014, Walker said. The supervisor also noted that the county’s media income remains below $50,000 and second lowest in the region next to Page County. In fact, the county’s median income has fallen by $1,000 since 2009, Walker added.

Several people who spoke at last week’s public hearing on the budget voiced support for funding the school system’s pre-kindergarten program. Frederick County Public Schools does not offer pre-kindergarten while Warren County has a minimal program, Walker said.

The vice chairman said that he thinks Shenandoah County schools do “an excellent job,” but, given the revenue forecast, he’s not comfortable with an increase in the tax rate that could negatively affect senior citizens or other people living on fixed incomes.

The county’s population increased only slightly over the past six years while government spending rose “exponentially,” Walker added. The board shouldn’t overburden the population, whose income remains relatively flat, with increased government spending until the county sees economic growth, Walker said.

Supervisor Cindy Bailey suggested that the board also cut from last year’s allocation amount the $135,000 the school system plans to pay consultants to conduct the redistricting. Walker questioned why $10,000 was not used to pay for software as he and other supervisors had thought it would.

Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese said he had a problem with allocating money and then taking it back. Bailey said the $135,000 was allocated outside the scope of the current budget.

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz said she supported Walker’s suggestion. Shruntz went on to propose that the county stop contributing to the cost of health insurance for individual employees. However, as Finance Director Mandy Belyea explained, the Affordable Care Act requires that the county cover the cost of the insurance premiums for each worker on employee-only plans equal to at least 9.56 percent of the person’s household income. The county could not eliminate the employee-only coverage, Belyea said. The maximum an employee can contribute to the single-user plan is 20 percent.

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