JAMES CITY – Health insurance and school buses, along with the related topics of career and technical education and teachers' quality of life, emerged as focal points of budget talks on Wednesday between elected officials from Williamsburg, James City County and the Williamsburg-James City School Board.
WJC Superintendent Steve Constantino and Chief Financial Officer Christina Berta gave an overview of the proposed $124.4 million 2016 budget, which became a springboard for a lively discussion about the needs of both students and employees.
In the division's proposed capital improvement plan, just over $1 million would go toward replacing school buses that have reached their mileage or age limits, and would continue through 2020 with enough funds to purchase nine school buses each year. Several elected officials expressed support for that. Indeed, James City Count Administrator Bryan Hill has proposed funding the school bus replacement plan, and this year the county is considering raising the real estate tax rate for the first time in nearly two decades.
That's just for replacing existing school buses, Constantino said. Multiple School Board members, including vice chair Heather Cordasco, have requested the purchase of additional buses. Doing so, they say, would allow the division to change the existing tiers of school start times and encourage more participation in regional programs such as the Governor's School and New Horizons, where many students take career-oriented and technology-focused programs.
The typical high school day in Williamsburg and James City starts at 7:20 a.m., but students in regional programs start their days much earlier because of the travel time involved.
"Often it's just a deterrent for our kids because of the time that they have to catch the bus," board member Ruth Larson said. "We do that because of the amount of buses that we're dealing with."
Constantino explained that due to increasing enrollment, he is proposing the addition of nine more classroom teachers at a cost of $675,000. Also driving staffing needs are increasing numbers of students who need programs such as English as a second language and reading assistance.
"All of these initial things are a direct result of looking at the data, disaggregating the data, and understanding that if we have this bag of money, where is it going to be best spent?" Constantino said. "Where are we going to see the best results in terms of helping all of our students be successful?"
Proposed changes to the division's health insurance offerings for employees also struck a chord with some members of the Board of Supervisors. The school administration is facing a 13 percent increase in health insurance costs, and is looking to modify offerings to be able to save at least $600,000.
"I am very engaged with our teachers on a regular basis, and often I hear the perception that they are doing more for less. They see their net pay decreasing," supervisor Kevin Onizuk said.
Berta explained that the impact of the health insurance changes – along with the proposed average wage increase of 2.5 percent for most employees – would depend upon which plan an employee chooses and whether he or she is looking for coverage other than for only himself or herself. It's all working toward compliance with changes required by 2018 under the Affordable Care Act.
"This is a baby step in how we approach what's changing in 2018," Berta said. "In 2018, we can't make those drastic changes in one year. This is a short-term fix for a long-term goal that we will progress to."
At the end of the session, Michael Hipple, chair of the Board of Supervisors, and Williamsburg mayor Clyde Haulman both said the information presented will be helpful as both localities make their funding decisions.
Hipple said, in his opinion, it looks like "the school has held tight on numbers and where they can save. Everything seems very solid. As we move forward, we'll make the best decisions we can for the citizens."
Haulman said he took away the fact that the school division "has many more challenges" than comparable school divisions in Virginia – yet performs as well or better in many areas of achievement.
"I think it just confirms that we have a school district that's doing a really terrific job with the resources they have, and that we need to be supportive of them," Haulman said. "At the same time, all of us have to keep a close eye on the bottom line."
The joint meeting was part of the annual process of developing the school budget. The School Board will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, March 17, and is expected to meet March 24 to vote on adopting a budget to formally present to the city and county.
Sampson can be reached at 757-344-2345. Reporter Austin Bogues contributed.