By Kelly Mae Ross

Rockbridge County school administrators have come up with a plan that might allow the district to emerge from this year’s budget battle in better shape than anticipated.

Superintendent John Reynolds and administrators lowered the school’s budget gap by $700,000 in the span of a few weeks.

At the March 6 school board meeting, Reynolds presented a budget overview that contained an $835,000 shortage. Less than two weeks later, Reynolds showed the school board a revised plan that was short by only $135,000.

The budget was altered in several ways, including cutting some spending.

“The whole goal is not to impact what goes on in classrooms,” Reynolds said of the cuts, which do include a $20,000 reduction in textbook spending, as well as the likely discontinuation of the summer school bus service.

Graph by Kelly Mae Ross.

Schools all over Virginia are trimming their budgets for the next school year because of disappearing federal stimulus dollars and the expectation of less money from state and local

In Augusta County, for example, the school district recently announced that it plans to eliminate 36.5 staff positions from its operating budget for the next school year, according to reports. In Staunton, 41 positions will likely be eliminated.

The pending retirements of four teachers in Rockbridge County will save the district money because the teachers hired to replace them will not be paid as much.

But the biggest portion of the $700,000 would come from a chunk of the budget that the school usually puts into savings.

Reynolds said he hopes that the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors will allow the district to use its estimated $600,000 in carry-over funds from this school year in the 2012-2013 school budget.

Carry-over funds are dollars from the current school budget that go unused for a variety of reasons, such as fluctuations in student enrollment and attendance.

Graph by Kelly Mae Ross.

“In the past, the Board of Supervisors has asked us to put [the carry-over funds into a capital improvements fund,” said Laura Hoofnagle, who chairs the school board.

But Reynolds, Hoofnagle and the rest of the school board said they hope they won’t have to do that this year.

Again, that depends on the supervisors.

“We had some chat about it,” said Supervisor David Hinty, Jr. “We see no issue because … it is not affecting the bottom line.”

“It’s not official,” said Supervisor Rusty Ford, “but it’s been informally approved at this point.”

Nothing is certain until Hinty, Ford and the other county supervisors pass a final school budget, a step that can’t be taken until the state General Assembly passes its budget.

Reynolds said he hopes the state will give more money to public schools than Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed in his original version of the state budget in December. If that happens, the remaining  $135,000 shortage that the school district is grappling with could shrink.

But Ford, who has been on the Board of Supervisors for five years and is a former teacher, said he is not optimistic that the budget from the state will be overly generous to public education.

“I’d give it a C-minus, maybe a D-plus,” he said. “We don’t know yet.”

Reynolds said he and other administrators have come up with a contingency plan that could be used should the state and the county give less money to the district than anticipated. But he would not detail that plan.

Another variable that Reynolds and the school board must keep in mind is the cost of fuel. With gas prices on the rise again, the schools could have to shift some money to pay for gas for the next school year.

One possible money-saving scenario would be to decrease the number of field trips students take.

Reynolds thinks the parents of children in the district should still be concerned, even though the budget gap is less than it was a few weeks ago. If the schools don’t receive the amount of money they are expecting from the state and the county, the  shortage could increase again, and more cost-cutting measures would have to be taken.

“I would hope parents would be concerned, concerned [enough] where they put a little pressure on the politicians to find monies for public education,” Reynolds said.

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