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Budget Woes Will Close Gold Hill

BUCKINGHAM – Caught in the struggle of reduced funding and hard economic times, Gold Hill Elementary School will close.

Describing closing a school as one of the saddest days ever, Superintendent Gary Blair shared, “I got into this business to help children, to help people-never to close facilities.” He continued, “But the reality is we didn't have enough money.”

During a phone conversation with Dr. Blair on Tuesday afternoon, he said he met with administrators earlier in the day and talked about a transition team. That team, he explained, would work toward a smooth transition and direct involvement with the Gold Hill family-the children and their parents, teachers, and staff.

“They are a part of it from here on out,” stated Blair, noting that schools will be out in six weeks.

“I hope and pray that we have a fruitful and true transition,” said the superintendent.

“One nice thing about it is that everybody will be coming there from a different school. Nobody is in that school now so they will all be new. They are all coming from different locations,” offered Blair. “We want to blend everybody and have them all on equal footing.” He added, “They will all be new together.”

Noting that his theme at the last board meeting was Stability Amongst Change, Blair shared, “The stability is that teachers and students are moving. So there will be familiar faces and teachers that care about children.”

Continuing, he stated, “And it will be a unified school at the Carter G. Woodson Education Complex.” Talking about the excitement of starting new traditions, Blair shared, “I think in a way it is fortunate to have Gold Hill start those traditions rather than come later when they have been established. They can be a part of establishing a new tradition and look forward to that.”

The superintendent stated, “I don't think there is anything more important than to orientate our families to a school.” He added, “We hope to have a significant K through 12 parent involvement initiative starting as well as some other things.”

Offering that the principals of the lower and upper elementary schools at the Carter G. Woodson Education Complex are truly excited about bringing all the children together, Blair reminded that Cindy O'Brien was principal of Gold Hill before moving to Buckingham County Middle School.

O'Brien will be principal of Buckingham County Elementary School, for third through fifth grades. Pennie Allen, who was principal of Dillwyn Primary School, will be principal of Buckingham County Primary School, for kindergarten through second graders.

Blair added, “So again, there is the stability with the change.”

Referencing the budget, Blair stated, “We are appreciative of what the supervisors have given us.” He explained that now that they know more about the state funding, Paul Imig, the division's financial consultant, will be able to complete the budget.

When asked about staff reductions, Blair said, “We have talked about personnel changes in closed sessions. Now we will finalize those. I'll talk to the board and we will move ahead.”

He stated, “We were hopeful and prepared but now that reality sets in it is time to finalize the budget, make sure the board is in agreement, and move forward.”

Blair reiterated, “We appreciate the help the board of supervisors extended. From the feedback that I get, they understand that we work hard to live within our means.”

He concluded, “They understand the gravity of the revenue reductions and they helped us, which was good. But, nobody has unlimited funds in-house.”

April 18 Meeting

During the public comment segment of the school board's April 18 meeting, Cecil Terry, a resident of the Gold Hill area, questioned whether the school board had asked the board of supervisors for the money to keep Gold Hill open.

Chairman Acie Allen responded that the supervisors were well aware of the school division's budget shortages.

Terry said he heard that the board of supervisors was never asked for the $576,000 in funding to keep Gold Hill open.

Allen stated, “I am not certain that the specific request has been made, however, it will be in the form of a letter to the supervisors.” He added that they would be discussing that tonight.

“So you are going to ask?” questioned Terry.

“Yes sir,” replied Allen.

Shannon Noraas, also of the Gold Hill community, questioned why the school board delayed making that request and waited to present its budget.

Allen responded that there would be a budget presentation later in the meeting and the reasons for the delays in the budget process would be addressed.

Nancy Johnson, another Gold Hill resident, thanked the school board for “at least attempting to get the money.”

Prior to the budget presentation, Blair offered, “The process has been long and arduous.” Noting that the board had tentatively approved the budget, he stated, “Part of the problem is that we had no idea what the General Assembly would do. We were in hopes that the board of supervisors would help and are thankful that they did with significant help and we appreciate that.”

Continuing, Blair explained that they could not take any action until the school board approved the final document, which Blair said they were continuing to work on at 4:15 p.m. that day. He added that up until late that afternoon, the General Assembly had not approved its budget.

Imig began his presentation with anticipated total revenues of $19,268,844 and projected expenditures of $19,888,037.

“That leaves a deficit at this point of $619,193,” said Imig. He shared that they were aware that the county had set aside $500,000 if the school division needs it. “And we do need it,” he stated.

Adding that there were also possible changes in state revenues, Imig said they may gain some additional funding from the state, which could offset the remaining $119,193 deficit.

According to Imig, the proposed budget includes all three tiers of the funding cuts that have been discussed over the last several months. Noting that those cuts include modifications in the school organization as well as staff reorganizations and modifications, he added, “It's all encompassing and you still have a deficit operating budget”

Imig noted that the additional $800,000 provided by the county in the FY12 budget was a one-time payment. He added that state revenues, based on the governor's budget, demonstrate a net loss of state operation revenues of $168,480. Moreover, federal funds are down $823,392, said Imig.

“The total of that is almost $2 million short of revenue from one year to the next,” he stated.

Moving on to the $19,888,037 in expenditures, Imig stated, “Essentially what is really happening is you are short on money. Most of your money, most of your expenditures, like most school systems, is in pay and benefits.” He noted that for most school systems, salaries and benefits account for 70 to 85 percent of expenditures.

He added that the state mandated increases in the VRS amount to $679,148; and, $101,915 for group term life.

Imig stressed, “Buckingham has been operating on a very prudent level for a number of years.” Because of that, he explained that they really did not have the option of looking for discretionary spending. He added that is why during the budget reductions they had to eliminate new buses and address staff modifications.

Following Imig's presentation, Blair reiterated the reason the budget was so late is because they waited and waited in order to be able to nail down the exact numbers.

“What I am suggesting this evening from the board is to give me permission, if you accept this, to send it to the county administrator and the supervisors tomorrow, understanding that the deficit appears to be $619,193,” stated Blair

The superintendent noted that with the additional $500,000 from the county and the anticipated $119,193 additional funds from the state, they would be complying with state code for a balanced budget. However, Blair explained that he would be coming back with amendments.

Noting the hard work from the staff that went into the budget, Blair stated, “We have fought and fought for every penny.”

He told the board, “What I am asking is for the school board to formally, in the front of this (budget) book, write a letter to the supervisors…asking them to fund Gold Hill, to keep that for one more year.”

Blair offered, “There has to be stability amongst change.” He added, “We really don't want to maximize the enrollment at the Carter G. Woodson Education Complex because there would be little room for growth.”

Continuing, Blair, noting that Gold Hill has “a lot of life left in it,” stated, “What I don't want to do is close it down in the midst of a panic because we don't have enough money and then a few years later say we have to open it back up because we are crowded.”

Addressing several supervisors in the audience, Blair offered, “I am not blaming anybody. I am not trying to push this off on anybody. Gentlemen, please understand if we could fund this ourselves we wouldn't ask.”

Blair stated, “But the reason we are late is because we tried to nail down everything that we could. Now we can't wait anymore because we'll miss the window of opportunity to ask.”

The superintendent told the school board, “So my recommendation tonight with the budget is to approve this document and have the chairman sign a letter requesting consideration to fund Gold Hill.”

Following a discussion on the various cuts that were made in the budget, David Christian led with a motion to table approval of the budget until after the closed session, which included personnel, student discipline, and the discussion of a public contract.

After a lengthy closed session, the board returned to the auditorium and open session.

Subsequently, Christian moved that the board approve the budget as presented with an attached letter asking the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors for additional local funding to maintain programs, personnel, buses, and Gold Hill totaling $1,612,175. With a second by Midkiff, the motion drew the board's unanimous support.

The $1,612,175 request included the additional $500,000 proposed in the county's budget along with $576,00 for Gold Hill and $536,175 to restore some of the other cuts.

Reality Takes Its Toll

In mid-March, facing an already austere budget and anticipating the opening of an elementary school complex offering state-of-the art lower and upper elementary schools, the school board placed Gold Hill Elementary School on the chopping block unless an additional $576,000 in funding could be found.

Unfortunately, there was no pot of gold waiting for Gold Hill at the end of the budgetary rainbow.

When the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors adopted its proposed FY 2012-13 budget on Monday, April 23-a balanced budget that had been formulated, presented during a work session, advertised, and addressed via public hearing-any remnants of that rainbow disappeared.