Blackburn: ‘no pot of gold at end of rainbow’
CHRISTIANSBURG – Budget worries have cast a pall over Montgomery County schools Superintendent Brenda Blackburn’s 41st start of classes, the veteran educator acknowledged last week.
“I see kids engaged, teachers engaged, it’s a can-do attitude … but I worry how long we can continue with it,” Blackburn said.
With the start of school last month, some of the results of this year’s tough budget decisions are becoming apparent. But others won’t show up until later, Blackburn said.
After a contentious budget process that included a record real estate tax increase for Montgomery County, school officials had to find $4.1 million in savings to balance the education spending plan.
School Board Chairman Wendell Jones noted Friday that while the county is in the midst of building two new high schools and renovating a middle school – projects that are taking most of the money raised by the tax increase – the school system has an array of other capital needs that will have to be addressed.
“It’s definitely shoestring when you look at the unfunded mandates that are sent down from the federal-state government … then the demands and expectations of the local county citizenry,” Jones said. “The present funding model at the state and local level doesn’t support our needs.”
Some of the immediate effects from this year’s budget cuts are:
- A 40 percent reduction in instructional supply budgets has led to parents and teachers having to pay more costs themselves.
- The elimination of either an assistant principal or athletic director “basically took a key leadership position out of our high schools,” Blackburn said.
- Cutting 40 positions across the system has included three counselors, six library aides, and an array of other jobs, including about eight teaching positions. Art, music and gifted programs are now half-time positions, with those teachers assigned to other duties as well.
“It’s painful … taking away from a solid program,” Blackburn said.
Reducing the number of bus stops prompted parent complaints and a review process that moved some stops. But the overall number of stops was still dropped by 225 from last year.
Fewer textbooks were ordered and many of the workbooks that students once wrote in are no longer used – although to some degree this is being offset with computers and other non-paper tools, Blackburn said.
Montgomery County is lagging behind nearby school systems in Salem, Radford and Pulaski County in terms of what it pays starting teachers, Blackburn said. A 1 percent teacher salary increase that survived this year’s budget-whittling did not cover the effect of state-mandated shifts in Virginia Retirement System contributions and teachers’ take-home pay was reduced, Blackburn said.
A new health insurance deductible for prescriptions means higher out-of-pocket costs for employees with medical expenses.
Throughout the schools, “It’s a different landscape” after years of tight budgets, Blackburn said.
In a long career as a teacher and administrator, much of it in Florida, Blackburn said the only time she recalled so bleak a financial picture was in the early 1980s, when government budgets were slashed.
“Always before it came back,” Blackburn said. “This time, this has been going on since 2008.”
She said she worries that next year’s budget will look no better and that some of the most controversial proposals from this year’s spending talks, like closing schools, will be even harder to avoid.
Blackburn is instituting monthly budget discussions at school board meetings, with updates on the system’s performance against this year’s budget and reports on studies of outsourcing and other means to provide services at a lower cost.
Blackburn and Jones said they are urging parents to contact state legislators and ask them to deliver more support for schools, especially in counties like Montgomery that were hurt by changes to the state composite-index funding formula.
Jones said he plans to put details of funding issues and who to contact about them on the school system’s website, and to mount an energetic campaign to have parents lobby for more funding.
But with the governor’s two-year budget proposal barely showing an increase for Montgomery County schools, Blackburn said she still wonders what’s ahead.
“There’s no pot of gold out there at the end of the rainbow,” Blackburn said.
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