It is imperative that Augusta County Schools meet three goals for the upcoming school year. They must be initiated to improve our students’ skills as they grow and prepare to earn a wage when they become adults. Accomplishing these goals will help every child regardless of his or her path after graduation. The district needs to continue the conversion to a digital platform in K-12 classrooms at an estimated cost of $1 million, implement the second- year of the five-year Salary Improvement Plan – at an estimated cost of $ 2.7 million; and maintain current instruction programming with consideration given to reinstating remedial programs that were reduced in past budgets at a proposed cost of $372,678.
Each year, the School Board is faced with the rising cost of retirement system contributions and health insurance premiums. These are costs over which we have very little control. For next year, the increase in these two items alone will cost the school division an estimated $2.8 million. New revenue generated by the Commonwealth of Virginia coupled with $993,000 of new growth money from Augusta County will not cover these increases. When everything is considered, we find ourselves looking at a $3.9 million deficit. So where do we turn for additional new reoccurring revenue?
We have two choices. We can ask the Board of Supervisors for additional local dollars generated by tax increases or we can reduce personnel/operating costs to redirect the use of funds. Since the economic downturn that started in 2009, we have reduced personnel to a level that that causes many of our classes to exceed the desired student-teacher ratios. The Board also closed Ladd Elementary which allowed funds to be redirected to other expenses while also addressing several other concerns.
Any increase in state funds is used to cover the costs of new mandates for no real net gain. Federal dollars are shrinking. It has become apparent that the key to providing a better education for our students depends on local funding because state funding as a percent of the budget is equivalent to what we received a decade ago. We have had the good fortune to have the support of our local Board of Supervisors the past two years in addressing some of our budget deficits. Just last year, our Board of Supervisors provided two-thirds of the real estate tax increase to the school division.
Data is available from the Va. Dept. of Education that shows Augusta County ranks 81 out of 132 school divisions in providing local dollars above the Required Local Effort. When compared to seven neighboring jurisdictions, Augusta County ranks last. Additional local funding allows us to provide better compensation for our employees, to maintain benefits, to address technology needs in our classrooms, and to offer more instructional and extracurricular opportunities for our students. Every year I am asked why we do not offer middle school athletics? My answer is that we must consider our instructional needs first. Data is available that confirms that our salaries are not as regionally competitive as they should be. It is critical they be improved this year or we will continue to lose employees to surrounding school districts. It has been suggested that the School Board move construction monies to meet instructional needs. In the early 90’s, it was recognized that we had over 20 schools with tremendous capital needs. The School Board, with the support of the Board of Supervisors, began systematically rehabilitating these facilities. The first project completed was Fort Defiance High School in 1994. That’s twenty years ago and we still have several elementary and middle schools that must be addressed. We must continue to upgrade our facilities and having a constant level of Capital funding has allowed us to plan and make steady progress.
Each year, we find ourselves trying to balance a budget on stagnant revenues while the cost of doing business continues to rise. I acknowledge that the Sheriff’s Department and Fire and Rescue have needs that must be considered in the funding formula as well. These are also core services that cannot be ignored.
Educationally, we are providing a level of service that has a direct relationship to local funding. If we desire to provide more opportunities for our children in the future, we must invest more local dollars.
Nick Collins is the chairman of the Augusta County School Board