2018-02-21 / Front Page

School Board approves ‘balanced budget’ for 2019


Averting a potential showdown with the Board of Supervisors, the School Board last week approved a fiscal year 2019 budget that falls within local funding parameters.

School Board members considered submitting a “needs-based” budget with a long list of initiatives and putting the onus on the supervisors to decide which would make the cut, but ultimately abandoned that idea.

The $654.7 million budget still represents an increase of nearly $33 million from the current fiscal year – and that doesn’t include $3.1 million the county is expected to provide to address a funding shortfall in the school system’s supplemental retirement plan.

There also are three unfunded items, totaling $6.6 million, the School Board forwarded separately for consideration by the Board of Supervisors.

“This additional list is not a list of wants, but needs,” School Board Chairman John Erbach said. “That, ultimately, is the goal of this budget: to provide for the needs of this school system and keep Chesterfield moving in the right direction.”

That became a theme in recent weeks as members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board exchanged sharp rhetoric over local tax rates and the school system’s spending priorities.

Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick rejected the notion that county schools aren’t adequately funded, suggesting the School Board has spent “huge sums of money” on initiatives that don’t directly impact the classroom.

But Javaid Siddiqi, who represents Midlothian on the School Board, questioned whether supervisors “understand what’s really happening in our schools.”

At a work session last month, Siddiqi lobbied his fellow board members to send the Board of Supervisors a budget that addresses the full extent of the school system’s needs.

When the School Board met to vote on the budget last week, Siddiqi acknowledged he was still “torn” about the right way to proceed.

“I know we’re prepared to vote for a balanced budget because that’s a commitment we made, but I would like to encourage our colleagues on the other side to accept this budget and really take heed to these unfunded needs,” he said. The School Board’s top unfunded priority is $3.4 million for facilities maintenance – which Nita Mensia-Joseph, the school system’s chief operating officer, has said is the bare minimum needed “to survive” in fiscal year 2019. “There is absolutely no elasticity in this budget,” she said during a work session earlier this month. “We’re scrambling now just to have enough parts for the maintenance guys. If we don’t get [the funding], we’ll go back and start carving things out.”

Chief Financial Officer Christina Berta and her staff identified nearly $2 million in cost reductions prior to last week’s board meeting – most notably, a downgrade in the school system’s membership in the regional Math Science Innovation Center that will save more than $1 million annually.

They also saved $508,000 by cutting most central office departmental budgets by 5 percent.

Those changes effectively offset the cost of newly added budget initiatives, such as reducing pupil-teacher ratios in special education classes ($600,000) and increasing daily pay for substitute teachers ($450,000).

“I think we’ve created a lean budget,” said Rob Thompson, the School Board’s vice chairman.

It’s a budget that accommodates a 2 percent employee salary increase, an 8 percent jump in the school system’s share of employee health care costs and additional debt service funding for the replacement of four aging elementary schools.

According to Erbach, developing the fiscal year 2019 spending plan was “extremely challenging” for the school system because it had to find $7.7 million to fund the partial in-sourcing of custodial services.

Following the failure of its custodial outsourcing program, the school system is preparing to hire 165 full-time day porters as part of a “hybrid plan” in which heavier nighttime cleaning will continue to be handled by contractors.

“As we listened to our teachers, our principals and our community members, both before and during budget discussions, we knew it was imperative that this school system change the way it provides custodial services,” Erbach said. “This budget achieves that goal, but at a cost that made it difficult to address many of the school system’s other needs.” ¦

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