In fiscal year 2009, the school-operating budget in Pulaski County totaled $45,456,333. Today, our operating budget is $43,809,162 – approximately $1.6 million less than it was six years ago. During these past six years, while experiencing decreased funding now totaling $1.6 million, our school system has also been forced to absorb cost increases for new programs, VRS contributions, health insurance, and utilities. How have we managed six years of decreased funding and increased costs? The answer is simple: as the share of the operating budget for employee salaries and benefits has increased to 87 percent, our reductions have transitioned from operating expenses to negatively impacting employees, salaries, benefits, and student programming.
Our state basic aid continues to decrease and as a result, our teachers and staff members have received only minimal pay increases twice since 2008. In addition, the cost of living or step increases provided by our salary scales have been eliminated each year due to inadequate state funding. While we continue to fall further behind in employee compensation, we ask our teachers and staff to absorb increases in their share of employee health insurance, and we require our school employees to “do more with less.”
In addition, each year we continue to eliminate teaching and support staff positions. Instead of valuing and retaining our most experienced teachers, we are forced to track their retirement notices as a means to balance our budget and avoid further reductions-in-force. Our supervisors have increased property taxes twice for a total increase of nine cents in order to offset decreases in state funding. However, as has been the case in all divisions, we have reduced, cut, eliminated and frozen salaries.
The Governor’s proposed budget does provide some relief by not creating more cuts and by reducing the employer share of the VRS contribution. However, we must begin restoring previous reductions.
As a result of unfunded mandates and diminishing state funds, we find ourselves having to eliminate important line items from our budgets, such as school maintenance and construction. Both are needed to provide for a twenty-first century learning environment that prepares our students for college and workforce opportunities and schools that attract new families and economic development into our county. Furthermore, we lack the ability to recruit and retain the best employees due to low salaries and streamlined benefits.
As State revenues increase, we are hopeful that the Virginia General Assembly will immediately increase the state’s share of funding for public education to the level of quality that is prescribed by them in the Standards of Quality and expected by all of the Commonwealth’s citizens.
Thomas Brewster is Superintendent of Schools for Pulaski County
Chris Stafford is Director of Finance for Pulaski County