Joint budget meeting leaves little hope for extra school funding

Walking into a joint meeting with city and county leaders Friday, School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook knew the discussion might not provide much hope for more school funding next year.

It seems she was right, though a final budget won't be available until May.

Williamsburg-James City County Schools' funding is largely determined by the county Board of Supervisors and City Council — the localities fund about $100 million of the division's $132 million operating budget. The rest comes from the state and federal governments and grants.

The three decision-making bodies gathered Friday morning to discuss the school division's outlook.

Including a late bonus from the state that earned the division a $480,000 revenue bump, the request for fiscal year 2018 is $4.5 million more than last year. Most of the increase is from a $1.5 million bump in required contributions to the Virginia Retirement System and $1.1 million for staff and teacher raises.

The county and city fund most of the budget, together making up 75 percent, including state sales tax. Most of that is James City County because most of the students come from there.

The gap between what the division plans to spend and its expected revenue from the localities is $1.4 million.

The School Board has tentatively cut the gap down to $800,000 with a spousal surcharge on health insurance and by removing the Pathways expansion and purchase of two buses.

"I think we've trimmed a little bit," Cook said. "If we don't trim enough, we'll have to trim again in May if the county doesn't come up with more money. And it's a very real possibility they won't."

James City County's plan

Board of Supervisors Chair Kevin Onizuk talked at length about what Superintendent Olwen Herron budget compared to the county's plans. He said the county has obligations to fund other requests, naming EMT, fire and police services.

"Schools are what bring people to our community, a good school system is important for a healthy community," JCC Supervisor Michael Hipple said. "This is ultimately going to cost the citizens more money."

Onizuk estimated the county would have to increase the real estate tax by 1.45 cents per every $100 of assessed value to fully fund the division's budget.

A person with a house assessed at $200,000 currently pays the county $1,680 in real estate taxes. The increase would push that bill to $1,710. But a real estate tax increase is not on the county's agenda, Onizuk clarified.

He said the meeting was full of "reasonable" and "intelligent" conversation, and everyone walked away realizing this year's funding limitations.

"We certainly are very supportive of the schools," Onizuk said. "We just have to have very real expectations that the dollars that are planned, there's probably not going to be a lot more available. ... I don't see a lot of ability for us in our two-year budget to make significant changes for any part of our anticipated funding."

Advocate for state funds

Members of all three boards made it clear they think the funding problem stems from a lack of state support. That's why Hipple suggested they band together to advocate in Richmond.

The groups all lobby separately, but he said uniting together could make a difference.

He pointed out 2018 will be the first year state funds to W-JCC will eclipse 2009 levels, used as a benchmark because of the recession.

In 2009 the state provided $32.8 million with 10,249 students enrolled. In 2018 it's expected to give $33.1 million with 11,459 students enrolled.

Cook is on board, saying she wants to advocate at the state and federal level. She mentioned the $600 million the State Board of Education asked the General Assembly for last fall, which she said put a number to what the state should be spending on K-12 education.

"There seems to be an underlying flaw in the logic of the state approach to education funding," Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling said. "Their goal seems to be, 'We're going to grow the economy and as we grow the economy, that will generate more revenue. That increased revenue will then allow us to fund education greater.'"

But he said this is wrong; the economy can't grow with an uneducated workforce. More money should be spent on education on the front end, to invest in people who then invest in Virginia.

"We've got to change the whole mindset of how we do education, put it in terms of economic development," Freiling said. "Until we get to that point, I don't see that we'll make much progress."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Budget at a glance

Proposed FY18 operating budget: $132 million

Approved FY17 operating budget: $127.6 million

Increase: $4.5 million, or 3.5 percent

Gap between expected revenue and planned expenditures: $1.4 million

The proposed budget calls for 1.5 percent minimum raises for all employees or a step increase for teachers, accounting for $1.1 million. The bulk of the increase is from a $1.5 million bump in required contributions to the Virginia Retirement System.

Next steps

The school board will continue the budget conversation Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., at its regularly scheduled meeting in the Stryker Center, 412 N. Boundary Street. They may approve it Tuesday, or wait until March 28 to vote. The city and county must approve the budget by May 15, when it will go back to the school board for final edits.

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