Tax talk in Montgomery starts again
CHRISTIANSBURG – If Montgomery County doesn’t find $3.6 million in new county funding for its schools, it faces another round of staff reductions, reduced summer school offerings, and a possible shift in middle school teaching that parents and teachers said would result in less support for students, school officials warned.
Dire predictions are not unusual during budget season. But in Montgomery County, where a boom in new school construction has been accompanied by staffing cuts and shortages of supplies as basic as paper, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain educational quality, school board members and teachers have said repeatedly. In the past five years, school officials said, the schools have eliminated 57 positions, slashed instructional equipment budgets by 60 percent and supply budgets by 41 percent.
Last Tuesday, a parade of teachers spoke at a public hearing on the schools’ budget proposal, warning that a contingency plan to save money by re-working middle school teachers’ schedules would effectively kill a popular team instruction method and reduce their effectiveness.
“We are the result of the elected officials above us’ decisions,” school board Chairman Wendell Jones answered. “And then we must take and make painful and difficult decisions as we have done over the past several years in trying to come up with a balanced budget.”
“How do we fill the gap?” added school board member Sarah Woolsey.
The school board meets again on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the County Government Center in Christiansburg to look again at scheduling and other savings measures that might be implemented if county supervisors do not approve the schools’ budget request.
If the $3.6 million in new money does not come through, county school officials have outlined these steps to balance their budget:
- Increase class sizes and reduce teaching ranks by the equivalent of 20 full-time positions to save $1.3 million.
- Modify the middle school schedule to reduce planning time and time spent on non-teaching duties, and increase instructional time. Teachers would be restricted to their core instructional areas. A result wouldbe the end of team teaching, teachers said. Administrators counter that it would cover the bases with fewer staff, saving $1.2 million.
- Eliminating two assistant principal positions at middle schools and eight other positions around the district to save about $654,000.
- Ending extended contracts for teachers with summer duties, reducing the director of special education’s job from full-time to part-time, and taking other steps to make up the remainder of the shortfall.
The schools are asking for a $96.1 million operating budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year that starts in July. It’s an increase of 4.6 percent over the present year. The additional county money, if raised entirely through the real estate tax – the county’s largest revenue source – would require a 5-cent jump in the tax rate.
Last year the real estate tax rate was raised 12 cents, to 87 cents per $100 value, mostly to pay the debt on construction of two new high schools and renovation of a third into a middle school. It was the largest tax increase that Montgomery officials could recall.
Speakers on Tuesday said that with the recession apparently lifting and the county’s per capita income rising, another real estate tax increase could be afforded.
Barbara Skinner, a frequent critic of school spending at county meetings, disagreed. She did not attend the hearing, but wrote in an email to the school board that in hard times, the schools need to join county residents in making do with less.
“Many have been suffering in this county … This board needs to seriously reevaluate our spending with a firm eye on quality education for our children. There are plenty of opportunities for saving money starting with increasing class sizes, evaluating the numbers/types of administrators, and dusting off the 2007 MCPS efficiency study for a second look at those recommendations,” Skinner wrote.
I’m as concerned about quality as I am spending,” Skinner continued. “…This county is currently building a new BHS (which has been touted as a unique school for a unique community) for a price tag of $50 million. As a parent, I’m far more concerned with quality than big spending and uniqueness.”
County supervisors, who are just beginning their own budget process, have so far been noncommittal about the prospect of another tax increase. As is the case every year, the county budget could be greatly effected by state-level spending shifts enacted by the General Assembly, whose session occurs at the same time that the county must plan its budget.
Supervisor Matt Gabriele wrote in an email Thursday that while the schools’ budget, and any cuts needed to balance it, are up to the school board, he thought the county should increase school funding to some degree.
“I will continue to work so that our students have the resources they need to succeed, especially in light of how state government continues to break its promises to fund public education at an adequate level,” Gabriele wrote. “Indeed, things will only get worse if Gov. McDonnell’s transportation plan passes, since that plan diverts money from the General Fund (for social services and education) to pay for transportation. At the very least, our spending for Montgomery County should take the state’s actions in mind, as well as keep up with increased prices because of inflation (about 2 percent in 2012).”
Schools Superintendent Brenda Blackburn said that as she awaits word on how much money the school board will have to operate its system, she and other officials will keep looking for possible savings. Tuesday’s look at scheduling is part of that process, she said.
“Maximizing direct teacher-student instructional time is a driving force behind the secondary scheduling study,” Blackburn said. “We can be more effective with our students when we relieve teachers of non-instructional duties such as parking lot detail, lunch detention, etc. … A change to our scheduling model could be both more effective and more efficient.”
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