No raises, no layoffs

Published 9:41 pm Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dr. Milton R. Liverman, Suffolk’s school superintendent, will recommend another year of pay freezes for teachers and other school employees, he revealed on Thursday.

And that’s only if Liverman’s self-described “best-case scenario” of a school spending plan withstand the bureaucratic wrangling of the next few weeks in Richmond, not to mention the budget knives of Suffolk’s city council.

If either state or local funding gets cut any further, he said, it’s not just salaries that could suffer — non-mandated programs and the jobs associated with them also could be in jeopardy.

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The superintendent offered a sobering assessment of the current state of school funding during a meeting with media representatives Thursday afternoon, just hours after releasing a $148.4 million proposed spending plan that represents a decrease of $1.85 million from the current year’s budget.

“This is the first document, and what we finally end up with is not going to look anything like this,” he warned. “We know it’s already in trouble.”

Since it was delivered while state and local funding levels are still unknown, Liverman’s initial budget proposal is based on a number of factors that are expected to change in the coming weeks.

Nearly $2 billion worth of tax increases that former Gov. Tim Kaine had suggested to help balance the state’s budget, for example, have been shunned by Virginia’s new governor, Bob McDonnell, and seem unlikely to survive budget deliberations within the General Assembly, Liverman said. Without revenue to fill that hole, school systems across the state will suffer more cuts, he added.

Suffolk schools also would suffer if McDonnell chooses to allow a change in the formula the state uses to compute the proportion of state to local funding. Before leaving office at the end of December, Kaine had recommended freezing the formula, which is based in large part on a community’s property values. Though an early statement from his administration indicated a willingness to stand behind Kaine’s recommendation, McDonnell said last week that he has not yet made up his mind on the issue.

Allowing the formula to change this year would cost Suffolk an additional $4 million in state funds, requiring further cuts in school expenses or additional revenue from the city.

Liverman’s proposed budget relies on federal stimulus funds to help close a gap in basic aid from the state, and he recommends that spending be trimmed in nearly every major category of the budget to help achieve balance.

No layoffs or program cuts would be necessary under the proposed funding levels. Any reductions at the state or local level, however, could put administrators and the School Board in the position of making some hard decisions, he said.

If further cuts are very deep, he said, he and his staff would have to examine the school system’s programs one by one. “We will have to ask, ‘Can it be eliminated?’ ‘Can it be restructured?’ ‘Can it be reduced?’”

The school system faced a similar budget crunch when it was putting together a spending plan last year, Liverman acknowledged. But federal funds and the ability to move people from one position to another helped Suffolk schools retain all the employees who wanted to stay, despite eliminating 88 positions.

Deep revenue cuts this year would not have the same positive results, Liverman warned.

“We would not be able to hold onto everybody,” he said.

The proposed budget will be presented to the School Board at that body’s next meeting. It must be adopted by that board and then approved for appropriation by the City Council by May 15.