Schools may stay open, board says

Published 11:20 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Suffolk may be able to keep all its public schools open and even offer school system employees a 1-percent pay raise, the School Board heard in a special budget meeting Tuesday morning.

The tentative good news came after the General Assembly wrapped up its budget work this weekend. Additional state funding of about $2 million, plus the postponement of some planned purchases, resulted in the hoped-for increase in available funds.

The school system initially proposed a budget that would require closing Mount Zion and Florence Bowser elementary schools. Officials anticipated saving about $1 million by closing the two schools, which would have required the elimination of 22 staff positions.

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The original budget was drafted with the intent of closing a $5.2 million deficit in state funds, but preliminary data from the General Assembly indicates the state funding for Suffolk Public Schools will be improved through a net increase of $1.56 million and a Virginia Retirement System premium decrease of $554,000.

After much discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to present a budget to City Council that would keep both schools open and approve the other proposed cuts.

“For practical reasons, we should do everything we can to keep them open,” said Linda Bouchard of the Chuckatuck borough. “We should keep the schools open until we are firm on a new school.”

Bouchard said it is difficult to open a school after it has been closed, and she also said she is concerned for the teachers who would lose their jobs.

“We ought to make an effort to hold on to those jobs,” she said. “We have a human element here. We are going to lose something very unique if we close these two schools. There’s a lot there beyond money.”

“We are a growing city,” Bouchard added.

The School Board’s attention needs to be on opening a new school in the southern end of the city, she said.

“In the meantime, we are going to need those 350 seats.”

“We don’t want to cut any programs, any teachers or any schools,” added Phyllis Byrum, representative for the Whaleyville borough.

Even without closing the two schools, the School Board has already approved cuts of $2.2 million, Michael Brinkley, executive director of finance for Suffolk Public Schools, said after the meeting.

To keep the two schools open and offer the pay raise, the school system will have to receive $1.4 million more from the city than it did last year.

“The composite index shows that the city has the ability to help us out,” said Diane Foster, representative of the Sleepy Hole borough.

The composite index is a state formula that determines localities’ ability to pay for their own school system. It is derived from local economic statistics like income levels and property values.