School budget goals include buses, repairs

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The school board met with the county board for a joint budget meeting last week

By Shaina Stockton

INDEPENDENCE — Now that the state’s final budget for the year has been approved by the General Assembly, Grayson County Public Schools officials are crunching the numbers in their own spending plan in the hopes of funding capital improvement projects over the next year, and providing a 1 percent raise for staff.
The Grayson County School Board discussed these items, as well as a few other projects they hope to finish in the next few years, in a joint budget meeting with the Board of Supervisors on March 8. The two boards met to go over the school budget in the Independence Middle School Library, where they assessed the school system’s needs and attempted to find allowances in what appears will be a tight budget this year.
“We cut some things in order to get our numbers down,” Wilmore told the supervisors, before moving into a breakdown of costs: $112,000 was set aside for a 1 percent raise for staff; and capital improvement project requests totaled $260,000: $170,000 for leasing 10 buses, $60,000 to replace outdated steam traps — which Wilmore explained will save the school system money in energy costs in the long run — and $30,000 to upgrade lights in the high school to LEDs, another long-term expense reduction.
This year’s budget proposal is around $367,000 more than what the school system requested from the county last year. “Two-thirds of that number is due to the unfunded mandate from the [Virginia Retirement System]; and the other costs involve the buses, the lights and the steam traps.”
To offset these costs, the school system had to cut two positions, Wilmore said, eluding to two positions that are already empty and will not be filled at this time. “My job is to base the budget on what we need, and what we feel is best for the schools and for our kids,” he said. “I know we are above what we asked for last year, but we tried to scale it back as much as we could.”
The school budget is determined in part by the school system’s Average Daily Membership (ADM), which currently stands at 1,577 students. But as a safety precaution — and to add a little padding throughout the year — the projected number for the budget will be 1,535.
“One other thing we did: you gave us $180,000 for capital improvements last year, so we’ve asked for that again this year for the sake of covering the cost of the buses,” Wilmore added.

During a discussion between the two boards, Supervisor John Fant asked Wilmore to provide a breakdown of the school system’s priorities. “The real estate assessment is down 1 percent this year; and if you add that to what we gave you for the bleachers, added to the LRE [local required effort, the minimum amount the county must pay for schools]...” Fant said. “I’m not opposed to giving money above the LRE, but I don’t understand from your proposed budget what the priorities are for the money above that.”
“I feel, from our conversations within the board and with [Charles Dickson of the school’s transportation department], we believe the buses are a strong priority,” Wilmore said. Second and third priorities are the steam traps (valves that are part of the heating system) and the light upgrades, respectively.
Fant also asked about rollover from the school’s capital improvement plan.
“We took what we got last year, and we tried to incorporate in the other things we needed in this budget,” said Wilmore.
“We’ve been giving the school system [funds] above the local required effort for the past few years, and it’s been given so long that I think it’s expected. But we want everything for the children we can get,” said Supervisor Eddie Rosenbaum, before adding, “But our revenue is down, too. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s about whether or not we can do it.”
Regarding the buses, Rosenbaum asked if it was true there were currently 13 buses on standby. Wilmore explained that the buses were there, but most of them were no longer usable and none of them were in good shape. “Those buses were taken off the road for a reason; they had their time,” he said.
Despite these problems, 10 of the buses are still carried on the school system’s insurance, and are kept on standby as backups in case another bus breaks down.
Wilmore explained to the supervisors that the school system is trying to get on a 10-year replacement cycle. The state recommends a maximum use of 10 years per bus, he said.
Rosenbaum expressed concerns that the projected life of the buses could vary due to their location and frequent travel along back roads.
Dickson, who was present at the meeting, assured Rosenbaum that the wear on buses by locality doesn’t vary by much. The school system has several buses that have been repaired and maintained and are more than 16 years old, Dickson added.
Moving on from transportation, Fant asked if similar replacement cycles would be implemented for other needs, such as the IT department.
Steven Clark spoke up for the department, saying, “There will be a first attempt at an IT network life cycle,” he said, noting that they’re frequently replacing parts that were discontinued in 2003. Not including individual machines, these replacements encompass items such as switching and cabling routers.
“We would like an individual machine replacement plan; but under the current rate of funding, it’s just not there,” Clark said.
The boards discussed other options for pay increases. “If next year’s budget doesn’t look good for whatever reason… are we setting ourselves up for across the board pay raises rather than focusing our increases in pay as incentive pay raises?” Fant asked.
Wilmore pointed out that competition with teacher’s pay with surrounding localities is already a problem that is likely to get worse if it is not soon addressed. “The hardest teachers to find at this point are math teachers, followed by science and foreign language teachers,” he said.

In further discussions about the importance of preparing for similar problems in the future, Wilmore expressed even further needs for the school system in the coming years. “The area where we’re hurting is that we’re having to constantly fix things. The plumbing in this building, for example, is awful. We still have galvanized pipes, and a big project next year will probably be to replace the plumbing,” said Wilmore.
He suggested the possibility of setting up a 7-8 year renovation plan. “I don’t think we need to build anything new; as Brenda [Sutherland, supervisors chairwoman] said, we have good bones here. But it will take some money, and we need a plan to get these schools renovated. We’ve done a lot already with a very small amount of money,” he said.
“The schools were neglected by my predecessors, and things were let go,” Wilmore continued. “There are lights in some of these buildings that you can’t even find the bulbs for anymore. Our students deserve nice schools to walk into. We need to make that happen.”
Fant pointed out the difference between operational costs and capital improvements, stating, “What problems do we have, and what is your desire for these improvements so that the muscles on these bones get stronger?”
“It would help me if someone came in to help me come up with a plan,” Wilmore said, revealing that a proper renovation plan hadn’t been put in place in more than a decade. Going through the notes of that plan, Wilmore said he’d had to discard projects for several schools that have already been closed. “We need a more updated plan, and for someone to come in and tell us how long what we have is going to last.”
Fant encouraged Wilmore to add these items to the budget proposal. “If there is a need, please let us know; that’s what these discussions are for. Discussions don’t cost us anything.”
Board members further encouraged quarterly talks between the two boards concerning financial statuses and needs as they develop.
Also during the meeting, Wilmore mentioned that the school board is still waiting to hear about the possibility of more money for capital improvements. He assured that the administration will continue searching for help on behalf of the school system.