Board slashes expenses

Published 9:50 pm Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Suffolk School Board spent two hours Thursday afternoon slashing expenses from its budget to close an expected funding gap.

School Board members agreed to cut three high school receptionists, two clerical positions in the central office, two custodians and three to five teachers.

The school system employs 1,161 professional employees and 924 support staffers.


Email newsletter signup

School Board members also discussed money-saving strategies, such as furlough days for employees earning more than a set amount of money, eliminating support for the middle school athletics program and asking Sentara to provide more funding for the Obici LPN program, as well as asking the Obici Health Care Foundation and the city to start providing funding for it.

The resulting budget cuts “further than the bones,” board member Enoch Copeland said.

The School Board has proposed a $137.4-million budget for 2012-2013. That proposal reflected a $6-million gap between proposed expenses and expected revenues, based on last year’s funding from the city and the governor’s proposed budget.

The gap widened over the weekend when the General Assembly approved changes to the Virginia Retirement System that would require school systems and local governments to give 5-percent raises to cover the 5 percent that employees now must contribute to their retirement funds.

The board was working from a list of 35 items developed by Superintendent Deran Whitney as potential cost-saving measures. More than 100 positions were on the list, though the board did not discuss cutting nearly that many.

One of the largest items on the list was the elimination of 32 bus monitors. However, Whitney said he is confident another source can be found for that funding.

School Board members identified saving teacher assistants and keeping the 19 school bookkeepers as 12-month employees as their biggest priorities.

The bookkeepers initially had been proposed to drop to 11-month employees, but School Board members found that proposal untenable.

“For us to be messing with our bookkeepers, I think, is a serious mistake,” board member Linda Bouchard said.

The board also agreed to keep as many teacher assistants as possible and avoid cutting them from lower grades.

“I feel they shouldn’t be cut from kindergarten,” board member Diane Foster said.

Copeland lamented the fact that cuts have to be made at all.

“You look down the list and you need everything down here, to be honest with you,” he said. “We have to weather the storm and hope for a better day.”

The school division still is waiting to find out how much funding it will receive from the state and the city.

The General Assembly did not approve a budget before the scheduled end of its session last week. Lawmakers are set to meet again next week to discuss the budget.

The city is set to release its budget proposal April 4.

The General Assembly action on the Virginia Retirement System would cost the school system nearly $1 million, Whitney told the School Board members.

The VRS contribution the school division must pay for each employee would decrease by 5 percent, Whitney explained. But because of the raise in compensation, the cost of benefits would increase.

“This is a little muddier than the Mississippi River to me right now,” board chairman Mike Debranski said.

The board could have chosen a phase-in approach to the VRS changes, but Whitney recommended doing it all at once, because administrators don’t know how things will look further down the road.

“If we phase it in over five years, we have no way of knowing what position we’re going to be in in the next one, two or three years,” he said.

The state-mandated raise, in addition to the 2-percent raise the schools want to give, would result in a modest increase in employee pay. For example, a teacher at the 8-year mark on the pay scale — who now makes $40,246 — would see roughly $367 more in take-home pay during the year.