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Chesterfield school leaders face empty chambers on school budget proposal; supervisors feeling more of the heat

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Chesterfield County's local government chambers remained quiet Tuesday when no one spoke on the schools superintendent's proposed budget for the school system. 

The subdued scene signals that it is the Board of Supervisors members who have felt more pressure when it comes to the budget lately.

It was a different, and louder, scene last week at a Board of Supervisors meeting when community residents unsuccessfully pressured supervisors to not advertise a lower real estate tax rate. The move by the elected leaders essentially lowered the tax rate because supervisors can't adopt a rate that is higher than what was advertised.

That same week, protesters also pumped signs outside of a budget community meeting attended by a supervisor in opposition to a lower tax rate.

The center of those residents' concerns? School funding. Some have even revived the idea of a meals tax that voters killed several years ago in order to help fund the schools. 

Schools chief James Lane has proposed a $647 million operating budget, which represents a $25.5 million increase from last year’s budget. Compared with last year, the budget asks for $8.5 million more from county supervisors.

Three main questions Lane had to answer in his budget proposal were how the school system was going to fund new custodians, start times and rebuilding old schools? 

Under his proposal and with the help of state funding, all of the district’s 7,166 full-time employees would see a 2 percent pay increase. The school division is expecting a total of $10.9 million in additional money from the state.

In his proposal, Lane also announced the rebuild of four elementary schools: Ettrick, Crestwood, Reams Road and Harrowgate. They are expected to be ready for use in fall 2021.

All of those facilities had been slated for renovations in the bond measure approved by voters in a 2013 referendum, but Lane said school leaders came to realize that a rebuild is more cost-effective in the long term because it allows a facility to last longer than if it were renovated.

The plan also supports the planned rebuild of Manchester Middle and an addition to Matoaca Middle East that allows for a combined Matoaca Middle campus and space for a replacement Matoaca Elementary.

Lane proposed cobbling together the funds for the projects from a variety of sources, including remaining bond referendum funds, grants, proffers and borrowing more money. As a result, the debt service would increase by $2.5 million. Proffers are fees paid by developers to mitigate the local impacts of new homes on county services.

To solve the school start time issue, Lane suggested that the school division absorb the cost, instead of going to county supervisors. He proposed transferring 50 vacant substitute bus driver positions into 30 full-time bus driver positions. That meant the school system could eat the $1.3 million in ongoing costs associated with changing school start times.

Lane said that without those substitute positions, the transportation system would still have coverage should a full-time bus driver not be able to work.

As for the custodial issue, Lane budgeted $7.7 million to pay to implement a hybrid plan approved by the School Board in December. School Board members outsourced custodial services several years ago to save money, but amid concerns over the cleanliness of schools, they decided to implement a hybrid plan that would place hundreds of custodians back on the payroll and outsource nighttime work.

There were a number of unfunded initiatives Lane listed in his proposal, and some of them became sticking points for residents when they talked with supervisors. That includes a $1.6 million initiative to reduce pupil-teacher ratios. Last year, the school system used such funds to reduce class sizes for students who don’t speak English as a first language.

The School Board is expected to vote on the budget proposal on Feb. 12. The plan will then head to the Board of Supervisors. 


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