School budget still unknown

Published 10:01 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Suffolk city and school officials met together Tuesday and found they agreed on at least a portion of the schools’ upcoming budget: the future is uncertain.

Although the school board is building a budget based on numbers from Gov. Tim Kaine’s proposed budget, nothing can be set until Governor-elect Bob McDonnell submits his budget after his inauguration on Jan. 16.

“I don’t want to paint a scary picture right now, but I just do not know,” Superintendent Dr. Milton Liverman said. “I won’t have a clearer picture until McDonnell submits his ideas … it pains me to say this, but I’m not sure where we’ll be end up a month from now.”

Gov. Kaine produced a proposed budget in which the schools would lose $2.5 to $3 million dollars in 2010. Included in his budget, however, is the recommendation to delay another decrease that would remove an additional $4 million dollar in funding.

The reason for the expected $4 million dollar decrease is due to the composite index, a tool used by the state to determine how much money districts will receive in state funding for their schools based on the locality’s ability to pay itself.

The index number and money received from the state are inversely related. Suffolk’s 2010-12 index number rose four percentage points from 2008-10, telling the state Suffolk can afford to pay $4 million more toward their own public education system.

That number is largely impacted by property values which rose 43 percent since 2007 and other factors such as taxable retail sales.

Liverman said he is an advocate for the delayed decrease because it saves the schools money now but recognized delaying the cut-back and will create a greater “cliff effect” in the future.

“As a school system, we still moved forward when encountering past problems with the budget,” Liverman said. “But, cuts may no longer be transparent.”

In the past, one of the ways cuts were made was by not replacing jobs as people left, but Liverman said if the budget gets bad it may affect the quality of the education children in Suffolk receive.

“Some people believe we have excessive staff,” Liverman said. “But you can only cut so much before it begins to affect the quality of education.”

Programs such as those preparing pre-kindergarten children for kindergarten and high school students for college may be cut in light of the budget cuts.

The board is remiss to see these programs go since they feel they have been instrumental in establishing a better reputation for Suffolk as a community.

Other options discussed to conserve funds included a shorter school year, insurance costs, staff and energy conservation.

Teachers voiced concern during a community meeting in December held by the school board that their raises would be cut for the second year in a row.

While raises were not discussed in Wednesday’s meeting, school board member Thelma Hinton brought up the teachers’ concern that while the school budget was cut, including teacher raise, that city employees recently received bonuses.

While the teachers understood cutting costs is necessary, “they felt like they were let down by you by snatching funds from them and giving your own people a [bonus],” Hinton said.

Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson attributed those bonuses to savings the people who received them made in their own budgets.

“There was no snatching,” Johnson said.

Ultimately, both the school board and city council said they’re unsure what the cuts will do to the school budget.

Johnson said they’re in a “uncharted waters” and a “holding pattern” and must “hold tight.” The budget will “go on a back burner” until they have a more definite idea of what McDonnell’s budget will propose.

“This is the 11th year I’ve had to prepare a budget, and this is the first time come January that I’ve been clueless of what it will be,” Liverman said.