School budget quickly shrinking

Published 8:08 pm Monday, November 23, 2009

Suffolk will lose more than $4 million in state aid next year, Superintendent Milton Liverman told School Board members Monday.

That number does not include any additional cuts made by the governor during his budget process, Liverman said.

Virginia’s educational funding formula takes into account a municipality’s adjusted gross income, taxable retail sales and property values. The formula helps the state determine a locality’s ability to pay for educational services in comparison to other localities in the state.

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Since 2007, however, the value of property in Suffolk went up 43 percent, and the adjusted gross income rose 20 percent.

The numbers mean that while the school system previously received about 70 cents for every dollar it needed, it now will receive only 66 cents.

Effectively, the commonwealth’s education formula has a built-in expectation that the city’s growth in tax base will be reflected in greater educational funding.

But school officials worry that things could get even worse for the school system.

“The four million is just the beginning,” Liverman said. “That does not take into consideration the governor’s proposed budget.”

The School Board plans a joint meeting with City Council Jan. 6 to discuss the budget and capital improvements plan. Liverman said Suffolk taxpayers most likely would be asked to make up what the state does not pay.

“You’ve got to keep the schools open,” Liverman said. “This money has to come from somewhere.”

Some School Board members expressed concern about the upcoming budget cycle.

“This budget business is almost at a crisis level,” William Whitley said. “Next year’s budget is really going to be tough.”

Liverman proposed one solution to save dollars — accelerating the proposed closure of Mount Zion and Florence Bowser elementary schools. Initially, a capital improvements committee suggested closing Florence Bowser in 2015, and Mount Zion in 2019. Each closure would save on the cost of running and maintaining the schools, as well as some staff costs.

“A half-million dollars is a half-million dollars,” Liverman said.

However, to close those schools, upgrades would have to be made to other schools so they can accommodate the extra population.

The school division also has stopped spending discretionary stimulus dollars it received this year, Liverman said. About $2 million of the $4.9 million still is in the bank, which could help close a hole in the coming budget cycle.

Stimulus dollars promised for next year also will likely not be coming, Liverman said. The governor already has used part of the money to close a hole in the state budget, though Liverman doesn’t know how much.

“It’s not coming, but I don’t know how much is not coming,” Liverman said.

Board member Michael Debranski noted the schools received none of a $3.5 million surplus the city received at the end of last fiscal year.

“Somebody said it’s almost a crisis,” Liverman said. “You better take the ‘almost’ out.”