Buckingham supervisors, school board at odds over budget

Published 3:56 am Saturday, April 20, 2024

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Buckingham County supervisors said they were confused. On four occasions over the past year, school district officials came and asked for money. And on each occasion, supervisors gave what was asked, funding raises for bus drivers and teachers. So why, supervisors asked during their Monday, April 15 meeting, were teachers and school board members showing up and pointing fingers, accusing the county of not providing enough funding? 

“You’ve been here four times in the last year and this board gave everything the school board asked for,” District 2 Supervisor Cameron Gilliam said. “From what I see, on the board, we’ve tried to give everything you’ve asked for.” 

The issue is how much the school district is asking for. School officials originally asked for $7.596 million in this current budget year. Then they came back, asking the county to fill the shortfall left due to the state’s budgeting error. On Sept. 11, 2023, supervisors gave another $111,521 to the district, in order to give bus drivers a raise. Then on Jan. 8 of this year, supervisors gave another $170,000 to the district, requested for teacher raises. That adds up to $8.503 million. 

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So for this upcoming year’s budget, the school board asked for the $8.503 million again, along with an additional $535,112, to fill in gaps caused by price increases, a loss in state funding and the ending of several federal grants. That adds up to $9.038 million. Uncomfortable with another increase, back on March 20 when Buckingham Superintendent Dr. John Keeler presented the school district’s proposed budget, supervisors had asked that staff look at any places to cut. After that is when supervisors say they started getting calls from people, accusing them of wanting to cut teacher salaries. During Monday’s budget meeting, supervisors said there’s other places to cut besides in the classroom. 

“We haven’t said nothing about cutting the money of teachers,” District 7 Supervisor Danny Allen said Monday. “We did say cut the money back, but that’s got a lot to do with other things than the teachers.” 

Allen echoed Gilliam’s earlier comments, pointing out that in the course of a year, district officials asked for just under $1 million extra. And now they come asking for another half million in addition. 

“Where’s all that money going?” Allen asked. 

Where the money is going 

Where is the money going? The answer, school board member Theresa Bryant explained, involves increased costs. 

“Our schools have been attacked by the recession, just like everybody else,” Bryant told supervisors. “Price increases are a constant. The cost of food, fuel for heating, fuel for our school buses and other forms of transportation, utilities, health insurance, cleaning services and building maintenance have constrained our school system budget allocation.”  

She also pointed out that as buildings age, they need more upkeep. 

“We have a school that was built in 1939, that’s 85 years old,” Bryant said. “And we want to keep it. But it has to have maintenance.” 

Health insurance costs are a problem for the district. At first, staff was told there would be a 14% increase, but after some negotiation and looking at all available plans, they got it down to 9%. Even 9% adds up, as that means an additional $344,685 in costs. 

Maintenance, meanwhile, has seen an increase of more than 20% in utility costs, along with the increased cost of fuel and basic materials. And then there’s the state’s latest gift. Every two years, counties are rated for the LCI or Local Composite Index. This is the rating that determines the district’s ability to pay for educational costs to meet what’s considered the Commonwealth’s standards of quality for schools. To get this number, the state looks at adjusted gross income, taxable retail sales and the true value of real property in a county. Basically, the lower your LCI, the more funding you get from the state. And you can probably guess where we’re going with this. Buckingham’s LCI went up this year. 

The district also lost some state and federal funding due to grants expiring. A total of $2.44 million is being lost in federal funds with the end of grants from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). With several state grants expiring as well, Buckingham schools lose another $243,628. The district tried to balance this out with a 7.5% budget cut, with overall a smaller budget than last year, but requesting a larger local contribution. 

A need for salary raises

And at the same time, in order to try and keep staff from leaving, school officials want to give a 3% raise to all contracted employees, and a one step increase for teachers. That would cost $609,075, of which the state would pay $261,404. That leaves $347,671 for Buckingham to pay. And school board members said without it, they will likely keep losing people. 

“The bad part is, guys, and this is no joke, we’re losing really good people,” District 2 School Board member Todd Jamerson said. “And they didn’t leave to go work in some fancy place, they went to go work in a prison, for money. For finances. To work in a prison as cafeteria staff. My guys, if you’ve never been inside that place, in that mess hall, that’s a scary situation, gentlemen, but sometimes you do what you’ve got to do to take care of your family.” 

Supervisors meanwhile pointed out that previous raises didn’t exactly go the way it was presented to them. When they gave money to the schools in January for a 2% raise, they thought teachers were getting a 2% raise on their full salary. Instead, teachers got a pro-rated version, based off 2% of their salary from Jan. 1 until the end of the school year. 

Other school board members argued Monday that they needed more than what supervisors were willing to give. 

“This is like a bare minimum straightforward request for funds, for our children, for our community, so they could have a bare minimum basic education,” District 1 School Board member Jennifer Spessard said. “We already don’t have a marching band. We don’t have an orchestra. And this past year, they didn’t even have chorus classes. I’m asking you as the county’s board of supervisors to make the cuts on your end and find the money to fund our children, to give them that bare minimum education. And maybe in the near future you’ll be able to find even more funds that could possibly help the students have a music program that they could actually be able to compete with other schools around our state and our nation.”  

Buckingham supervisors say it’s not that simple 

To be clear, as Buckingham supervisors pointed out Monday, it’s not like the county has an extra $500,000 just lying around. In order to cover the school district’s requests, along with the others in the proposed budget, the Buckingham real estate tax rate would have to go up. 

The proposal presented Monday involved a 5 cent increase, going from 55 cents per $100 of assessed value to 60 cents. If approved, this would be the second straight year Buckingham raised its real estate tax rate. In 2023, supervisors went from 52 cents to 55 cents. Currently, Buckingham ranks fifth in the region, in terms of real estate tax rates. Lunenburg is first at 33 cents, Amelia is second at 38, Nottoway is third at 48, Prince Edward is fourth at 51 and if Buckingham supervisors raise the rate next week, they’ll be tied for fifth with Cumberland, which is lowering their own rate from 75 cents to 60. 

A final vote on the proposed tax rate and budget is set for next Monday, April 22, beginning at 5 p.m.