by Caroline Blackmon
Rockbridge County teachers and administrators have won the promise of a small pay increase after the county school board and the Board of Supervisors reached a compromise on next school year’s budget proposal last week.
The supervisors voted to increase property taxes in the county by about 2 cents per $100 in assessed home value to help pay for the budget increases the Rockbridge County School Board has proposed.
Salaries will increase by an average of 1.5 percent under the proposed budget.
The budget overall calls for an increase of $790,629, from about $29.3 million in 2017 to just over $30 million in 2018. The state is also providing just under $300,000 in funding. These together will provide the money necessary for teacher raises as well as three state mandates and an increase in utilities expenses.
The school board must submit a final budget proposal by March 31, as well as a “categorical estimate of needs” to the board of supervisors.
The board of supervisors voted unanimously to set the effective tax rate at 71 cents per $100 of assessed value, with a public hearing on the increase set for April 24 and a final vote on May 1.
Parents and teachers attended a school board meeting on March 14 meeting to speak of a “crisis” in staffing and teaching loads in the school system.
Rockbridge County High School Latin teacher Patrick Bradley said 85 teachers at the high school submitted and signed a letter pleading with the supervisors and the school board to invest more in education.
“There is a crisis situation with the budget,” Bradley said in the meeting.
Besides the individual pay for each teacher, Bradley said in an interview that schools don’t have enough teachers or staff to cover every position they need.
“We wanted to make it clear that we weren’t simply saying to pay us more. They all know that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much you pay us if we don’t have enough people doing the work.”
In developing the budget proposal, the school board identified seven items that would increase the overall budget — salary increases, the state mandates, utilties costs, and two hoped-for new teaching positions.
For the teachers, the board requested money for a one-step salary increase with benefits. Not every teacher would receive the same amount of money or the same percentage of an increase, Superintendent of Schools Jack Donald explained. Those who have worked for more years and have moved up to higher positions would receive more than those who have not worked as long.
According to the proposed budget, he said, “a one-step salary increase will not make up any salary disparities, but it will reduce the rate at which we are falling behind other school divisions.”
For the county’s teachers, the past 10 years have provided an average increase of $8,640.
Compared to other school systems surrounding Rockbridge County that are of similar size, his data showed there’s not much difference in teacher raises. But many of these school systems, including Alleghany and Staunton, are planning on giving their teachers at least a 2 percent increase in salaries for the 2018 fiscal year, Supervisor of Finance and School Services Matthew Crossman said.
Donald presented data at the meeting March 14 to support giving the teachers a raise.
“We’ve seen increases in dollars, but all we’re doing is falling behind as compared to other schools,” Donald said in the school board meeting. “We need to say thank you to our teachers because they’re doing a great job. We’ve got quite a value for what we’re paying. We need to do better in terms of what we’re paying.”
Tinni Sen, parent of a senior at Rockbridge County High School and an Economics professor at Virginia Military Institute, spoke at the supervisors’ meeting last week.
Sen, who is also a member of the Rockbridge County High School Parent Teacher Student Association, said in an interview: “I wanted to make sure our voice was heard and that the Board of Supervisors knew that we were concerned about this.”
She said several teachers are pulling double duty at the high school. One has been teaching both Advanced Placement Civics and AP Statistics at the same time in the same classroom because the school lost a teacher and doesn’t have the funds to bring in a part-time teacher.
“The teachers have been doing so much with so little,” Sen said in the interview.
She added that the school’s funding has been flat for the past few years, which has caused budget cuts to two of their most important departments: AP classes and Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes.
The three state mandates forced next year’s budget to increase by over $450,000. These include an increase in the retirement rate, an increase in associated health-care charges, and an increase in health care premiums.
The county must pay for one-third of the mandated $450,000, since the state will only provide $300,000. Chairman of the board of supervisors David Hinty said the state often mandates cost increases without matching them with funding.
“Basically every school system needs money, regardless,” he said. “If a state makes a mandate, we have to come up with the money somehow. That’s always our biggest issue.”
As a result of the mandates, the school system is losing the two teaching positions that the school board wanted to fund, Donald said. The positions were going to be at the elementary school level in art, physical education and gifted education or at the high school level for technology support.
“There’s not going to be enough money for [new] positions,” he said. “We have inadequate funding from the state for K-12 education, and then when unfunded mandates get pushed down, we have no choice but to figure it out.”
The proposed budget would increase funding for utilities. Chairman of the school board David McDaniel said in an interview that last year, the cost of utilities was understimated. The proposed increase of $30,000 for utilities would provide the extra money the schools need for water, sewage and electricity bills.
The supervisors’ decision to set the property tax rate at 71 cents per $100 of assessed value will generate almost enough funding to meet the school system’s reduced budget.
The decision reverses an an earlier tax decrease. The most recent property tax adjustment took the tax rate from 73.5 cents to 69 cents, according to Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter.
The county retains a third-party firm to do the reassessment every six years, Suter said.
A last outstanding item to be settled was the school board’s request for $100,000 for consulting and training fees. This will not be covered by the board of supervisors, but by a separate escrow account to which the school system contributes.
The funds will go to help defray consulting fees and training as the school system upgrades its financial system, transferring it to a new program.
This story corrects information in an earlier version, which mischaracterized the school board’s role in the decision to raise property taxes.