Shenandoah County supervisors intend to wait on more information before making a final decision on how much money to allocate Shenandoah County Public Schools for its operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The Board of Supervisors met for a half-hour budget work session on Tuesday morning, five days after holding a public hearing on the county’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, to continue discussing the proposed $74.8 million budget before it goes to supervisors for a vote of adoption at next week’s regular meeting.
School funding has become the central topic of this year’s county budget talks, as supervisors advertised for last week’s public hearing a $28 million allocation for the school division’s operating budget, a $2.3 million cut from what the county provided last year and $3.8 million less than what the school division requested.
Critics of the proposed cuts – primarily teachers and School Board members – who spoke at last week’s public hearing claimed the decreased funding would lead to the cutting of extracurricular activities and staffing and an exodus of teachers due to non-competitive salaries and could jeopardize the division’s ability to receive federal funding from the latest COVID-19 relief bill. Those who spoke in favor of the cuts last week deemed it an appropriate means of addressing what they view has been the financial mismanagement of taxpayer dollars by the School Board.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Baker began Tuesday’s work session discussion by stating that he didn’t feel comfortable making a final decision on the operational funding provided to the school division given the number of unanswered questions and information that is “constantly changing.”
Supervisors, citing the newest round of federal CARES Act money, said it remained unclear as of Tuesday morning what the maintenance of equity requirement would be and what amount of funding the county would need to provide the school division in order for it to take advantage of those federal aid funds.
“I’d like a little bit more time so I can conscientiously make a decision I feel comfortable with,” said Baker, who suggested supervisors hold off on such a decision for at least a week.
Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the county budget’s adoption and tax rates on Tuesday, but they could delay action on a separate resolution pertaining to the school division’s allocation for operational funding until a later meeting if they feel their questions are still unanswered in a week’s time. In that instance, if supervisors choose to fund the school division more than the proposed $28 million, the additional funds would come from the county’s unassigned fund balance, a few supervisors noted on Tuesday.
District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris said School Board Chair Cyndy Walsh, Vice Chair Michelle Manning and schools Superintendent Mark Johnston recently made a “generous” offer to give any unspent school funds from this fiscal year back to the county if level or near-level funding is provided for schools by the county in fiscal year 2022. Morris suggested those leftover funds could be used to offset money taken from the county’s unassigned fund balance if supervisors indeed choose to increase its allocation to the school division after the rest of the county’s budget is passed.
District 4 Supervisor Karl Roulston stated that supervisors needed to be mindful of the timing of their decision on school funding so as not to adversely affect the school division when it comes time to hire and issue contracts.
Less controversial a topic than school funding, Morris said on Tuesday, is the proposed 5-cent increase to the county’s real estate tax rate that will help fund public safety initiatives already on the books. Morris said he’s heard little resistance to the proposed increase – only a few of the 57 people who spoke at last week’s public hearing expressed opposition to it – and District 3 Supervisor Brad Pollack, who had previously stated he opposed any tax increases this year, said on Tuesday that he could support such an increase “considering everything going on here.”
Roulston said a couple of comments from the public hearing, including those made by School Board member Marty Helsley, calling for county unity after what has been a turbulent year that has included the School Board’s decision to rename schools on the southern end of the county – a $300,000 undertaking that rankled many county residents – particularly “resonated” with him.
Roulston said it’s important for the Board of Supervisors and the School Board to “bridge the gap” and eliminate the perception that both boards “can’t trust each other,” adding that both bodies should meet more frequently. Other supervisors agreed.
“It’s good for both bodies but, more importantly, it’s good for the citizens to see us working together,” Morris said.
Roulston also noted that the county needs to move forward and said supervisors need to make choices that are best for the entire county.
“Everybody does,” agreed Pollack, who has been a vocal opponent of the school name changes and had proposed drastic cuts to school funding, “and I think that both boards are beginning to really realize that.”