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POWHATAN – The Powhatan County School Board had a grim discussion on Monday about the impact of possible reductions in county funding to its fiscal year 2021 operating budget that may be considered.

The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors approved 90 percent of the county portion of the school board budget on May 14 with the understanding they would work with the school board to determine how to handle the other 10 percent, or about $2.33 million. The two boards will hold a joint meeting about the topic at 6:30 p.m. on June 11.

Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, gave a presentation to the school board on Monday, June 1 during the meeting held via Zoom on possible cuts the school board may need to consider if the supervisors were to approve a final budget with anywhere from a 2 percent to a 10 percent reduction in county funds.

Some of the more stark areas the school division would have to look to first if cuts are required include eliminating field trips, eliminating athletic, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, cutting all department budgets by 10 percent, and laying off employees.

Jones said he wanted to show the school board what some of these cuts might look like but stressed repeatedly he was hoping they wouldn’t have to make any of them. In conversations with supervisors he has spoken with and with interim county administrator Bret Schardein, Jones said he has suggested leaving the school budget whole, especially since the board of supervisors plans to appropriate the budget quarterly as more information is known.

Jones pointed out that the final budget the school board sent to the supervisors already included a $1.36 million reduction from the numbers they had been working with in April. The school division was originally expecting a $1 million increase in state funds, but saw that number reduced by $460,206 when the General Assembly amended its budget in April. The division was also expecting a projected $904,438 increase in local funds, but dialed that back to a level county funding request after it became clear supervisors probably wouldn’t favor an increase.

When the board of supervisors follows through on plans to appropriate funds on a quarterly basis, at that point the county will know what the revenues are and can make accurate reductions if necessary, he said.

“Nobody knows what revenues are going to be and us making cuts now to me is the wrong order to do it in when we don’t know what they are going to be. We may end up cutting something that we don’t need to cut,” Jones said. “So I am not advocating any of these, but my goal in showing these to the board and to the public is simply that these are the things that we would have to take a look at if we made cuts at 5, 8 or 10 percent and to give an idea of the magnitude of those cuts and how deep those cuts would have to be.”

Understanding the budget

One of the points Jones stresses every budget season is what a small percentage of the roughly $50 million schools budget is considered variable costs. Showing a pie chart breaking down the fiscal year (FY) 2019-2020 budget, he pointed out that 84.78 percent of the PCPS budget ($40.9 million) is payroll and benefits. Fixed plant operations, which includes electricity, heating oil, water, telephone, maintenance contracts and supplies, accounts for 7.05 percent. Fixed instruction and vehicle (4.03 percent) includes professional contracts, school resource officers, regional school tuitions, postage and postage meter/copier leases, vehicle fuels and supplies, and software and licenses.

Variable costs cover items such as instructional and office supplies, textbooks, association memberships, equipment replacement, and other miscellaneous items, Jones said. Those expenditures account for only 4.15 percent of the PCPS budget, or about $2 million.

Jones said he wanted the board members and the public to keep that in mind as they looked at what it would take to further reduce the schools budget in one of four different scenarios: a 2 percent reduction is $466,935; a 5 percent reduction is $1,167,338; an 8 percent reduction is $1,867,740, and a 10 percent reduction is $2,334,675.

Before going into the reduction options, Jones offered a few considerations for board members to keep in mind. Within that variable costs line item is technology equipment. If PCPS doesn’t spend $278,400 on technology equipment, it loses $232,000 in state revenue. The likelihood of distance learning being a continued necessity for the foreseeable future makes technology spending essential, he said.

The school division will only realize minor savings in FY 2021 with SunTribe Solar’s new solar panels ($15,273) and energy savings from TRANE ($2,752 to $17,377).

The division is projecting it might finish the current fiscal year with an estimated $950,000 in savings. The school board wants to establish a revenue stabilization fund where it can roll those unused dollars at the end of the fiscal year.

Non-personnel reductions

With anything more than a 2 percent decrease in the budget, the school division would have to reduce personnel. But before that happens, Jones gave the school board a look at some of the areas where non-personnel reductions may be considered.

A 10 percent cut to all material and supply budgets would save $97,234, he said. Restricting all non-essential travel, such as teachers going to conferences, would save $29,276. Eliminating all field trips that aren’t educationally required and the driver pay and fuel it would save would bring a reduction of $74,127.

Finally, eliminating all athletic, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities would save $298,247, he said. This would largely be in the area of coach stipends for athletics and sponsor stipends for clubs and activities such as yearbook, drama, marching band, or winter guard.

All combined, these four areas of reduction represent a total of $498,884 in savings, Jones said, adding that roughly covers a 2 percent reduction in county funds.

“There really aren’t any other options that we can come up with … these are really what we have when it comes to these options. More than a 10 percent cut in materials and supplies means we don’t operate our schools and we really cut into our core business of instructing students,” Jones said.

With anything above that level, the school division “would have to look at teachers or other staff for personnel reduction as part of a reduction in force,” he said.

In the comment periods at the start and end of the meeting, most of those who shared their opinions were speaking about possible cuts to athletics and extra-curricular programs. Dozens of comments were sent to Jones via email or the Zoom chat feature protesting the idea of cutting these areas. In particular, choir, band, and theater were brought up repeatedly by parents and students and the positive impact they have had on students was stressed.

During the discussion, the point was made that the school division doesn’t even known if and when the Virginia High School League will give permission for sports teams to resume. If that doesn’t happen, at least for a time, that would represent more savings. Jones argued this as another reason to approve the full budget and appropriate funds as more information is known.

Personnel reduction options

Not wanting to identify particular positions that would be considered in cuts, Jones said he tried to keep the cost analysis general when looking at potential personnel cuts. He gave the salaries of a 10-month teacher with a master’s degree ($54,514); instructional assistant ($18,280); clerical ($30,772); trades such as maintenance/mechanic ($32,938), and bus driver ($17,420).

To give an example of how a higher cut might affect the school division, he gave the following scenario: based on a 5 percent reduction from the county at $1,167,338 minus all non-personnel reductions listed ($498,884) above, the division would have to reduce personnel by $668,454. To provide context only, this scenario would equate to laying off the equivalent of 13 teachers or 36 instructional assistants.

“If we are not willing to eliminate all field trips, if we are not willing to eliminate athletics and extra-curriculars, if we are mandated to by the board of supervisors cut at a 5 percent level, then that means we would have to reduce more staff,” Jones said.

Jones also mentioned that one furlough day for all employees represents roughly $161,000 in savings.

The discussion surrounding personnel reduction options became tense when Kim Hymel, who represents District 5, questioned why Jones had not included any figures regarding staff at the central office in his calculations.

“The teachers and the teachers’ assistants are the heart of this whole educational system, and they are the ones that are on the front line taking care of the students and teaching them every day. In my mind, there is no way I can cut any personnel that is in the classroom. I believe that the teachers and the teachers’ assistants all need to be there,” she said.

Jones said he only included the categories he did to give the board a range of costs. He purposely did not list any positions that might only have one or two employees in them and be easily identifiable, which would be unfair to them.

“If the board directs us to reduce personnel – which, again, I don’t think we should be reducing any personnel – then we would certainly take a look at central office as well as across the board what we need to be able to do that,” he said.

Rick Cole, District 1, said he agreed that the school division’s budget is lean and he doesn’t want to see cuts. If furloughs are necessary, all positions would be on the table. But he said he understood that Jones was giving the board a high level look at the impact of cuts.

Hymel suggested being proactive about saving immediately by looking at the cost reduction from having central office staff on furlough from July 1 to Aug. 7 except for a payroll day, finance day, or other necessary tasks. She asked staff to show how much savings that would represent since she doesn’t believe all central office staff is needed during that time.

Cole disagreed with Hymel’s assessment and said he didn’t think a single board member should have the ability to ask for that “since that is such a momentous policy decision.”

Valarie Ayers, District 3, said she agreed with why central office positions hadn’t been included in the general salary estimation since a position usually represents one person and the division is “trying not to totally terrify people by saying your job might be on the line.” She also stressed the need for more information before any such decisions were made, saying furloughing central office staff as of July 1 would give the board 30 days to do their due diligence, which is “unrealistic.”

Susan Smith, District 2, supported Hymel’s request for information about central office with “lump sum” figures rather than specific jobs. She later added that they have to be able to communicate on this hard subject and be able to express ideas and ask questions.

Jones again said he would not consider making cuts in staff, if they became necessary, without including central office in the consideration. However, he talked about the role central office staff members have played in developing the distance learning program during the pandemic and said he believes this summer will be one of the busiest they have ever had as they work on the difference scenarios of what might happen in the fall.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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