Published 3:37 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2012

PRINCE EDWARD – Not enough participants in the high school's JROTC program could spell its demise.

School board members, meeting in a budget work session prior to their February 8 meeting, were informed that the Air Force JROTC program is not meeting enrollment.

“…A communication that we received made reference to the hope that we would join the Air Force in a mutual agreement to end our program for next year, which I thought was…kind of an interesting approach because they didn't indicate…anything about the current status of our program and the enrollment,” detailed Division Superintendent Dr. David Smith.

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Dr. Smith went on to add that he was on the phone with the administrator in charge of the regional program twice the day before “and he clarified that our minimum requirement is 75 students each year and we've not met that.”

Three years ago, the Superintendent thought they were “in the mid-to upper forties” and that they are at 61 now.

“And the projection for next year, including the incoming eighth graders, is only about 61-62,” he said. “So I asked why there hadn't been a notification of the probationary status and he really wasn't sure. But he said that that would be a letter that we would be getting-that we are on probationary status-and, because of the numbers, would have been there over the last couple of years.”

The JROTC program was part of the budget discussion. Should it be eliminated, it would mean a $60,000 savings. (While there are two instructors, the school division receives some reimbursement for the program. It was noted that it works out to about a quarter of the salary and benefits for the two instructors.)

A January 23 letter from Chris L. Wheeler, Colonel, USAF to Dr. Smith cited, “As a means to address our collective budget challenges, I would like to offer this opportunity to mutually agree to close AFJROTC units in your district. Looking ahead to the 2012-2013 school year, I know schools and districts are facing some real budget battles. While we all understand the importance of AFJROTC to the school, students and communities, I am well aware that we have programs struggling to remain viable. This offer is not a reflection of the amazing work and dedication of the students and teachers in your community; this is simply acknowledging that we both are looking at tough fiscal decisions.”

Col. Wheeler cited the he is making the offer to close the programs at the end of this school year, effective in the summer of 2012.

“This option is in accordance with the agreement signed between the Air Force and your school district that allows for the closure of a program, with less than a year's notice, if the decision is mutual,” the letter stated. “This is not a popular course of action; however, this offer could help us close some struggling units, allowing us both to better allocate our shrinking resources.”

“This is really difficult,” Dr. Smith said, “because this is a program that…reaches some kids, it motivates some kids, that may not be motivated by some of our other programs. But if we're not able to reach the minimum enrollment, with all the strengths of our current program, maybe this is something that we need to look at as a reduction.”

Dr. Smith also offered, “It's difficult to look at that program and think about a reduction, but if we're in danger of losing the program anyway, this might be a time that we need to take a look at it.”

Dr. Smith reflected that he asked if they could continue with one teacher if they decided they would like to phase it out so that the older students in the program could finish their completion series.

“And he said absolutely not,” he said. “Their regulations require…two full-time instructors.”

Currently, the school division offers four levels of the class and those who complete two years successfully-should they enter the military-qualify for a salary bump (equal to one year of military credit). Those who complete three years successfully in the program would get a two-year salary bump should they enter the military.

Dr. Smith lamented that he wishes they had been able to communicate the probationary status previously. The superintendent suggested that, had they known, there might have been some steps to boot interest in enrollment.

Other Possible Cuts

The work session offered another look to how school officials may address having fewer budget dollars for next year. Specifically, they are weighing $709,923 less in state funds, the elimination of $904,751 in federal funds (totaling $1,614,674 funding reductions), $876,000 more in Virginia retirement system rate increases, a ten percent health insurance premium increase (an estimate at $170,400), and a proposed two percent salary increase. Collectively, with confirmed expenditure reductions, they have a projected budget shortfall of 2,096,323.

School officials, however, presented a priority reduction list-which includes the $60,000 possible savings with the elimination of the JROTC program-totaling $1,111,124. It still would leave a net budget shortfall of $985,199.

Other items on the priority reduction list include: elementary special education teacher and aide vacancies not filled in the current budget year ($86,480); eliminating the Elementary Spanish program-two teaching positions-($129,960); reducing the elementary staff by one teaching position ($64,980) and five instructional aide positions ($105,000); reducing the middle school staff by two teaching positions ($129,960); eliminating the high/middle school Read 180 program (including 1.2 full time equivalent positions-saving $64,980-as well as support services and materials for the program, saving $17,990); a high school special education teacher vacancy not filled in the current budget year ($64,980); an additional special education teacher reduction based on declining special needs population ($64,980); reduction of special education administration position (through retirement) $72,700; eliminating one support position due to retirement in the school board office ($59,114); a maintenance reduction in equipment funds ($20,000); and reducing the proposed two percent salary increase to one percent ($170,000).