Debate of $400,000 continues
The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors set aside $400,000 to repair pitted sidewalks, failing stage lighting and other problems at Christiansburg High School, but the school board wants to spend the money on studies of improvements at Falling Branch and Christiansburg elementary schools, as well as at Christiansburg Primary School and the high school.
Supervisors are wading into another budget season with a projection of just $2 million in new, undesignated revenue. The school board last week approved a budget proposal that asks the county for $3.5 million in new county money.
School finances will be in the spotlight this week as supervisors meet Monday to consider the school board’s request to use the $400,000 fund set up for Christiansburg High School, and as the school board meets Tuesday for a public hearing on its budget proposal.
Supervisors said last week that they are waiting to hear from school officials why the $400,000 Christiansburg High School fund should be spent elsewhere. Supervisors set the money aside in November after parents and school volunteers described safety problems there. School board members were incensed that supervisors acted without a formal request from them and said the issues at the school were more cosmetic than dangerous.
School officials have a years-old list of desired repairs at Christiansburg High School. It includes an estimated $60,000 price tag for replacing the exterior doors to the gym, $52,000 to remove dirt mounds and reconfigure sewer access pipes beneath them, and more for a total of more than $1 million.
In a Jan. 10 letter, schools Superintendent Brenda Blackburn said her board might use some of the $400,000 fund for Christiansburg High School, but wanted the flexibility to use it elsewhere too. The school board wants to pay for a feasibility study to suggest means of relieving overcrowding and addressing problems at all the schools in the Christiansburg strand, Blackburn wrote.
Blackburn wrote in her letter to the supervisors that the study would look at the needs of all Christiansburg schools. Also, it “would provide the data and information for the viability of the Christiansburg High School site and building for long-term use and would insure that funds are not expended for an improvement that would then need to be demolished to meet future improvements.”
Supervisor Chris Tuck, who proposed the $400,000 fund in November and who was accused of meddling at the next school board meeting, said Thursday that he will be “all ears” at Monday’s session.
But he warned that, in his opinion, the county should be careful about hiring consultants, and noted that the schools have staff engineers.
“We were elected to make decisions,” Tuck said. “Some of those decisions are hard, and staff are there to help us make hard decisions. The only time we should go outside is when we don’t have that expertise in house.”
Other supervisors said they would withhold comment on school finances until after Monday. Two of the seven school board members replied to requests for comment on the funding request, with Mary Biggs saying she agreed that it would be better to speak after Monday’s meeting, and Phyllis Albritton saying that since she’d been out of town, she’d let others address the issue.
The school board last week heard the results of another facilities study conducted last year by the Cardno Tec company. The consultant recommended spending $2.2 million on facilities upkeep next year instead of the $750,000 in the schools’ proposed budget.
Across the next five years, the consultant recommended $10.9 million to address facilities deficiencies. During the next 20 years, the schools would need about $210 million for major maintenance and repairs, Cardno Tec said.
The Cardno Tec study was approved as a result of outcry following the Blacksburg High School gym roof collapse and concerns about the condition of other buildings. It cost about $160,800 and reviewed all buildings in the school system, about 1.7 million square feet of space, according to the school system.
Schools are the largest item in Montgomery County’s budget, with school operating funds taking about 59 percent of the county’s overall revenue last year. The county approved a record 12-cent jump in its real-estate tax last year, bringing the rate to 87 cents per $100 value, largely to cover costs of a $124 million project to build two new high schools and renovate a middle school. The school construction follows building of a new courthouse that opened last year. Schools were left to cut more than $4 million from the system’s operating budget last year, and did so largely by letting dozens of positions remain vacant.
This year’s school budget proposal includes a 2 percent raise for employees and continued adjustment for a state requirement to increase retirement system contributions. Blackburn and school board Chairman Wendell Jones have called it a needs-based budget. Last year, school officials warned that larger staff reductions or the closing of schools could result if budget requests weren’t met.
While much of the county and school budget depends on the state, and the state’s funding won’t be known until later in the General Assembly session, the two-year state budget approved last year gives just $615,891 in new money to Montgomery County schools. Meeting the schools’ funding request would require new county revenue equivalent to a 5.1-cent increase in the real-estate tax rate.
County supervisors will weigh the schools’ request with those from other agencies, hold their own budget public hearing, and approve a spending plan in the spring.
The school board plans to look at facilities needs at a Feb. 28 session.
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