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Wise County School Board schedules Loop Road hearing for Feb. 27

Stephen Igo • Feb 11, 2014 at 11:11 PM

WISE — The Wise County School Board on Tuesday set 6 p.m. on Feb. 27 as the public hearing for the school division’s planned traffic flow improvement project at the Big Stone Gap schools’ campus.

Referred to as the Loop Road project, the school division seeks to improve traffic access and flow during peak times at Union High School and Powell Valley Middle and Primary schools complex.

Last month, the board chose Maxim Engineering of Coeburn and W-L Construction & Paving of Chilhowie to spearhead the project. Preliminary plans are to make a more direct access to the middle school from near the high school and turn an existing access road to the middle school into a cul-de-sac to channel primary school traffic. School bus lanes will be part of the project as well.

In other matters, the board reviewed survey results of three calendar options for the 2014-15 school year, and a de facto year-round calendar, called the Balanced plan, received little support from teachers.

The Balanced plan received just 68 votes in favor, while a traditional school year calendar was actually balanced with a mixed plan, at 238 to 235 votes respectively. The mixed option is heavily weighted more on the traditional August through end of May calendar, but reflects an extended winter break, featured in the Balanced option, and a smattering of the Balanced option throughout.

The board will likely choose a calendar for 2014-15 next month.

The board is also taking under consideration the possibility of reviving an early retirement incentive offer to trim employee payroll via attrition. The school division realized considerable savings in employee costs during the high school consolidation downsizing through early retirement and may take that option for 2014-15 as well.

Schools Superintendent Jeff Perry said 21 teachers have expressed interest in an early retirement incentive program should it be offered again. Besides adjusting staffing levels to actual classroom needs, the school division likely faces another fiscally lean year in 2014-15.

In its second preliminary review of likely budget scenarios in as many months, Perry and school division Finance Administrator Ron Vicars detailed a likely jump in the county’s composite index number the state uses to fund local school divisions.

Essentially, the lower the index number used in the state formula, the more state funds to that local school division. The composite index is basically a locality’s “ability to pay,” or lack thereof, for schools. Wise County’s composite index will rise for 2014-15 primarily as a result of the new Virginia Dominion power plant in St. Paul and the facility’s associated boost to local tax coffers.

Wise County’s index number could have been locked in at a savings of multi- millions of dollars in state funds over 15 years had Norton joined the consolidation program. But the city didn’t, and the upshot is the county expects to receive between $1.7 million to $2 million less in state funds beginning in 2014-15.

That puts another bind on a budget that has shrunk by at least $12 million annually over the last five years. Toss in an expected 15 percent increase in Virginia Retirement System payments over the next three years, and the budgetary consequences are another round of belt tightening.

Perry said the Dominion power plant tax boon is a good thing, but the other side of that coin is a resultant decrease in state funds for the county’s school division. The county has its own budget troubles with an expected $3 million deficit, primarily a loss in coal severance tax funds.

Perry noted the county Board of Supervisors likely cannot make up a $1.7 million loss in state funding. The county already provides nearly double what the state requires Wise County to pay to support its school division under the composite index formula procedures.

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