Coming budget talks call for public participation

By Susan Gibbs

At 7 pm Monday, Nov. 19 the Greene County Board of Supervisors and the Greene County School Board held a budget workshop in the meeting room of the county administration building.

In just about an hour, thanks to an impressive combination of organization and candor the two boards addressed lingering questions, established common ground, and determined to get the public involved in making some hard decisions.

The organization was thanks to school officials.

Just prior to the beginning of talks, they handed out a double-spaced, three and a half page document that explained, concisely and clearly, the public school district’s Early Retirement Incentive Program (ERIP) and its Special Education Preschool program – two issues that Greene County School Board Chairwoman Michelle Flynn defined as “key” because, she said, they “have come up year after year after year.”

The ERIP is not a mandatory program; the preschool program is.

In the past, school officials have explained that ERIP allows employees who are interested in retiring to access health care coverage if they are retirement age, but not yet Medicare eligible. ERIP participants must provide 20 days of services each fiscal year. In exchange, each receives a fixed salary of either $500 or $1,000, and the employer’s contribution to the district’s health insurance plan, which is currently $5,871.50.

They have also explained that the program benefits the employer by providing immediate salary savings in that new employees earn on average at least $10,000 less per year than retiring staff – a savings that also reduces employer benefit costs – and provides the school district with experienced substitute staffing.

According to the handout delivered to those participating in and attending the workshop, there are currently 24 participants in the program, which carries a net cost of $130,963. Nineteen of the current participants are teachers, and the remaining five are secretaries, maintenance workers, or custodians.

Also according to information provided in the handout, the Special Education Preschool Program requires three special education preschool classrooms. The school district is required to seek out children aged two through 21 who are suspected of having a qualifying disability and to provide peer role modeling, which entails bringing a certain number of non-disabled peers into the classrooms. The peers are provided by the Virginia Pre-School Initiative (VPI).

The total cost for the Special Education Pre-School Program is, according to documentation, $375,579, of which the federal government provides $104,140, excluding Medicaid, leaving a local share of $271,438. The VPI carries a total cost of $191,536, of which the state provides $140,000, leaving the locality to pick up the remaining cost of $51,536.

Moreover, the handout provided the following information on mandates:

General Education mandates:

  • Federal: The Elementary & Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), known as No Child Left Behind, requires that all groups of students, including minorities, low income, special education, English language-learners, in grades three through 12 must pass standardized tests in math and reading at certain rates which increase annually. Failure to meet standardized testing targets results in loss of funding and/or additional restrictions on funding. Separate testing must be provided for, along with support at an appropriate level for each student.
  • State/Federal: All professional staff must meet certain licensure requirements. There are also mandates to have “highly qualified” staff and periodically new training mandates are issued for all staff that work with certain student populations, such as autistic children, diabetics, and more. In addition, development and training is required for teachers, whose evaluations are tied directly to the progress of their students. And, there are attendance and graduation requirements to be met.
  • State: In order for schools to be accredited, all students are required to meet certain target pass rates for standardized tests in all core academic areas, which include math, reading, science and social studies.

Special Education mandates:

  • Regulations in this category are derived from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act amended in 2004. While there is a 161-page document that outlines how special education must be provided in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the key principle is Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Essentially, FAPE requires that school divisions must, without regard to cost, provide an appropriate education to each child identified with a disability, regardless of severity of the child’s disability and individual need. In addition, Maintenance of Effort (MOE) requires that a locality must spend “at least” the amount of local funds on special education as spent the previous year per pupil or in total.

The handout also included the following information:

  • Laws also require that all federal and state grant funds must be used for their specified purposes. Federal grant funds total more $1.6 million, while more than $4.8 million in state funding is grant funding or funds tied to specific programs. Examples of state money for specific purposes/programs includes Gifted Education, Summer School, the Epipen Grant, Technology VPSA funds, Adult Education, Homebound, Foster Care, Early Reading Intervention, K-3 Primary Class Size Reduction, SPL Algebra Readiness, and Textbooks. Greene cannot accept these millions of dollars unless we offer the corresponding programs.
  • In addition, there are health and safety requirements to be met. All staff, products and services required to meet all regulations related to elevators, fire safety, air quality, food safety, ADA accessibility and more – covering more than 450,000 square feet of public buildings, all associated equipment and grounds.
  • There is legislation that covers pensions, FICA taxes, healthcare and more. After the school district issues the contracts to have the staffing necessary to meet all the above mandates, all pension, tax and healthcare requirements must, by law, be funded.

Flynn opened the candid discussion by telling Greene County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buggs Peyton that the two key questions asked of the school board in the past had been addressed in the hand out, and that the school board was likely to lose money again from both state and federal sources.

“Just about everyone has sat down at some point in time, you more than once and drilled down through the numbers to understand why (the ERIP and the Special Education Preschool Program) are of benefit both financially and in terms of serving our children well,” Flynn said.  Are there any questions about either of those (programs)?”

Both Supervisor David Cox and Peyton questioned the ERIP.

Peyton said he thinks it is “extremely important to have qualified, certified teachers that are not on social security to be able to walk into a classroom and pick up the lesson plan.” He added that he approves of bus drivers participating in the program, but does not approve the inclusion of other workers. He also questioned whether or not the cost of the program, as calculated by school officials, reflected the cost of insurance claims.

Cox said he doesn’t “have any problem with bus drivers, I know how hard it is to get licensed bus drivers that are certified to be able to drive but I question secretaries, maintenance and custodians being involved in this program.”

The preschool program was not questioned; neither were the mandates, and then the participants began to discuss the forest, rather than the trees.

About the expected increase in cuts, Flynn had said in her opening remarks:  “Our hope would be that if we are able to offset those increases in any further state and federal revenue losses with more cost cutting we could be assured of level (local) funding.”

Supervisor Eddie Deane commented that meeting last year’s level of funding would require a five cent raise on the dollar.

Supervisor Jim Frydl noted that there is “certainly a whole list of things that can be cut but realistically there are only certain things that can be cut.”

Peyton was more hesitant, saying, “I get beat up all year long … I get questions like how do we fly our teachers to Florida for a one-day seminar. How do you get a staff car?

School Board Member Troy Harlow pointed out that mistakes happen, and when they do, “we fix them, but unfortunately the public remembers mistakes.”

Flynn said she was frustrated with the rehashing “of things that we have heard about and talked about and we have resolved … if you’re still talking about it you’re telling me you probably don’t have any idea what’s happening in the schools now.”

Davis Lamb, Vice-chairman of the board of supervisors said, “I agree with Michelle. “We have to look at today. And move forward, not backwards.”

Cox said, “I’d like to be … proactive … instead of reactive. I compliment … the school board and the school administration for being here tonight and starting early on this …We have all got to work together for the good of the kids in this county and the taxpayers. It’s got to come together.”

And then the discussion turned to public participation in the decision-making process.

Frydl said, “We can start identifying plans and get feedback from the public. We can have a hearing sometime in January, and have a conversation with the public.”

After pointing out that 86 percent of the public school district’s budget is non-discretionary, Superintendent of Schools Dave Jeck said that cuts would impact people.  “(We need to ask the public) if the school board is faced with making cuts, what is your preference? What would you like to see protected, what would you like to see us looking into as far as making cuts.”

Flynn noted that the community is not just (about) the schools, and said, “I think it is important … (to be) transparent about the possibility of a $1.2 million (school) budget shortfall … it is important to motivate the public.”

The workshop was, in a word, outstanding, and not just because it came in the wake of raucous demonstrations last budget season, but because a deep concern for the current economy and its effect on all residents of the county was ever-present in the air.

Hopefully, given the consideration they were shown by both boards Nov. 19, county residents – those who have children in school and those who don’t – will repay it in kind, by attending the public hearing and politely, but candidly, speaking their minds

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