WISE - Two members each of the Wise County Board of Supervisors and county school board met with head members of their administrative staffs on Tuesday to discuss school division funding needs and perhaps forge a communications bridge between the two elected bodies.
Wise County School Board Chairman Barry Nelson and Vice Chairman Kyle Fletcher joined Schools Superintendent Greg Killough and school division Business and Finance Director Ron Vicars in 2007-08 budget discussions at school board offices in Wise with Supervisors John Peace II and Robby Robbins, and County Administrator Glen "Skip" Skinner and Assistant County Administrator Shannon Scott.
Fiscal issues were the core of the joint session, an informal gathering that also broached the gamut of educational issues ranging from the merits of pre-K programs to facilities and equipment upgrades.
Out of a total $72 million operations budget for next fiscal year that includes off-the-table federal dollars and other flow-through programs, the state will provide Wise County about $40 million and the school division is asking supervisors for nearly $15 million, roughly $750,000 more than the current fiscal year. Most of the "new" local money will be applied to pay increases for school personnel, including some $150,000 to double the annual teacher stipend for master's degrees from $1,500 to $3,000, and the educational specialist certificate (Ed.S.) from $500 to $1,500.
Robbins asked if the stipend increase was all local dollars, and Killough confirmed that reality. The baseline pay increases sought by the school board for personnel next fiscal year are 5 percent for teachers, 4 percent for administrators and 8 percent for support staff.
The state will provide a 3 percent pay hike for teachers effective in December but bases its allotment to local school divisions for that purpose on approved Standards of Quality teaching positions. Wise County employs more teachers and support personnel than the SOQ allotment supports based on student populations by grade level, so county taxpayers make up the difference. Killough said part of the county's higher-than-SOQ-minimums are driven by staffing six high schools with comparatively low student populations, and partly the needs of programs at the middle and primary school levels.
Peace asked if the county's new at-risk pre-K program duplicated Head Start. Peace was also concerned the program was causing classroom space problems in schools where it is in place. Killough said the school division and Head Start serve different needs for 4-year-olds in different ways, plus Head Start can and does serve 2- and 3-year-olds and their families as well. He said the school system and local Head Start provider are working toward coordinating their services to avoid duplication.
In any event, Gov. Tim Kaine has launched a pre-K initiative with a goal of eventually making pre-K public school programs universal, and if it ever becomes mandatory, Wise County will have a leg up on the process. Currently, pre-K programs are voluntary for school divisions in Virginia and Wise County's is voluntary for at-risk children and their families as well.
Robbins asked Killough if pre-K affects parental nurturing of small children and Killough said "yes and no," but believed involving parents as much as possible in a pre-K program was the key to the nurturing element. Scott said pre-K was a far better nurturing environment than "unorganized babysitting" environs many children are placed in.
Robbins wanted to know why school division operations budgets over the last three years or so have taken $2 million upward bounces.
"It appears to me to be very drastic jumps," he said, "and where is this going to leave us in the future? Is that going to be a trend? ($2 million to $3 million annually) facing us?"
Vicars said most of the increases reflect more generous funding from the state. Killough reminded that sometimes the state attaches strings to the money "and that puts pressure on you all" because to get $3 million often requires a local match. Vicars said cost escalations in school employee benefits also account for recent annual multi-million dollar bounces in the school budget.
Fletcher said to achieve top academic standards, "sometimes you have to pay to get to the top," and paying teachers attractive salaries and benefits has reaped dividends for Wise County youth in recent years. Nelson said the "better teachers you have, the better off you are."
Peace pressed to find out how much of a tax dollar actually gets to a classroom. Killough said between 70 percent to 80 percent of the school division's budget goes for salaries and benefits, but it can be argued that shows up in a classroom with quality teachers and support staff to assist the educational process.
Keeping all schools on a rotational basis for upgrades and maintenance, as well as equipment such as school buses, was discussed by the parties. The county has been dealing for years about declining enrollment and aging facilities at its six high schools, and on Monday the school board voted 5-3 to defer sending a revised $85 million renovations plan to supervisors in order to explore the option of building new, possibly fewer, high schools.
St. Paul High School, the newest of the six, was built in the 1970s and just getting to the age when a 25- to 30-year maintenance/upgrade rotation would kick in. Killough said it is "too late" to put the other five high schools on such a rotation, seeing as how they were built in the 1950s and not upgraded much in nearly six decades, which is why the county finds itself in its current high school quandary.
"We've got high schools on our plate, we've got other projects (at Powell Valley Primary and Coeburn Middle schools) on our plate," and the division is also trying to keep middle and primary schools on a maintenance/upgrade rotation on the same plate, Killough said, so the latter won't fall into the same fix the county now confronts with the high schools.