2017-12-06 / Featured / Front Page

Funding gap puts schools, supervisors on edge


JAMES HASKINS JAMES HASKINS After many months of discussions, the Chesterfield school system appears to have settled on plans to replace an underperforming custodial contractor and push back daily start times for all county high schools by 70 minutes.

But with the Board of Supervisors sending clear signals that it intends to apply greater scrutiny to future school budget requests, it remains to be seen how the School Board will pay for either initiative.

Nita Mensia-Joseph, chief operating officer for Chesterfield County Public Schools, told members of the County-Schools Liaison Committee last week the changes will require $11.1 million in additional funding for fiscal year 2019 – approximately $7 million to bring some custodians back in-house after more than two years of outsourcing, and $4.1 million to push back school start times. Whether supervisors will agree to allocate the additional funding is an open question.

“There are certain fundamental increases in the school budget, such as teacher salary increases, increases in costs such as health insurance and special education needs. However, new initiatives that require more revenue need to be vetted by the public,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dorothy Jaeckle in a recent email.

After considerable consternation, and an inability on the part of the current custodial contractor to meet the school system’s expectations for cleanliness, the School Board is planning to bring in new custodial workers by April of next year.

Mensia-Joseph said the plan is to bring in new custodial contractors and “day porters” as it transitions away from the current contractor, Tennessee-based SSC Solutions.

As part of that process, the school system is expected to issue a request for proposals this month, seeking three custodial companies to eventually take over after-school production cleaning from SSC.

The new plan is expected to cost $19 million annually, or $7 million more than the school system currently pays for custodial services.

As County Administrator Joe Casey noted, though, under such a timetable, the school system would be committing to a more expensive custodial model prior to the Board of Supervisors approving its fiscal year 2019 budget.

“The timing is awkward,” Casey said. “I’ve never liked putting [a request for proposals] on the street that didn’t have an appropriation tied to it. I want to figure out how to get through that.”

Casey also pointed out that the school system has spent the $7 million in annual savings from custodial outsourcing on other programs and initiatives, and questioned whether it would be willing to cut anything to offset some or all of the new expenditure.

“There’s $7 million in your base budget right now that is being allocated in a different fashion than it would have been had you not switched to this outsourcing,” he added.

According to Superintendent James Lane, most of the money saved through outsourcing has been used to increase employees’ salaries and hire new teachers to reduce class sizes.

Carrie Coyner, who represents the Bermuda District on the School Board, recalled that those were the top priorities of the five-year spending plan jointly developed by the Board of Supervisors and School Board to gradually restore school funding that had been cut during the recession.

“We all looked at the outsourcing of custodial and it looked like a good plan and was going to be OK,” Coyner said. “The decisions we made at the time were the best decisions and we’re seeing results in classrooms. Speaking for me, I don’t think there is anything we would trade back for it.”

By saving money through outsourcing, Coyner noted, the School Board has been able to direct additional resources into the classroom without having to ask the Board of Supervisors for an additional $7 million annually.

“That’s another way to look at it,” she added.

Supervisors have offered no public hints about how they will respond should the School Board ask for $7 million more in its fiscal year 2019 budget to cover the increased costs of the new custodial model.

As outlined in an Oct. 31 letter from Casey to Lane, local school funding in FY19 currently is projected to increase by nearly $6.3 million, but none of that money has been earmarked for custodial services.

There also was no mention of funding for the school system’s plan to push back school start times for high schoolers. Lane has made this one of his major initiatives since becoming superintendent in July 2016, citing the positive physical and mental impact of allowing teens to sleep later in the morning.

School officials have solicited input on the issue from parents, students, community members and scholars. They’ve also worked to reduce the up-front cost of start time changes from as much as $19 million to the current estimate of $4.1 million.

The School Board has set aside more than $2 million in reserves to help fund the purchase of additional buses required for the start time initiative, which Lane hopes to implement by the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Here’s the sticking point: under state law, all money in school reserve funds at the end of each fiscal year is returned to the county’s general fund until the Board of Supervisors votes to give it back to the school system.

Lane said the school system will ask the board to do that at its Dec. 13 meeting.

Historically it has been a routine transaction; to encourage school leaders to efficiently allocate taxpayer dollars, supervisors almost always give them back any surplus money to fund future initiatives.

There’s no guarantee it will happen this time, though. Board members, including Jaeckle and Vice Chairwoman Leslie Haley, still harbor significant misgivings about the school system’s start time proposal.

It’s unclear whether the school system can afford to change school start times by September 2018 if the Board of Supervisors doesn’t reallocate the $2 million in reserves.

There is some support within the board for using that money instead to fund the school system’s supplemental retirement plan.

Such a move likely would meet with resistance from School Board members, who have been frustrated over the past year by what they see as supervisors’ attempts to micromanage the school system – particularly as it pertains to the SRP, an employee benefit program that was on the verge of insolvency before it was overhauled by the Board of Supervisors in April.

While county leaders say the program is slowly returning to a healthy status, it likely will require millions in additional funding over the next few years to keep it moving in that direction. That also could have a significant impact on the school system’s operations. ¦

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