STAUNTON – After weeks of jockeying over funding, Staunton City Council and Staunton City Schools have seemingly come to an understanding on how to proceed forward to fully fund the schools in this year’s budget, although plenty of work remains to help school staff deal with compensation issues .
In order to cover the $ 624,113 funding gap between the schools and the city, there had to be adjustments for both sides. For their part, the schools had to adjust their budget by $ 259,000 which came from revenue adjustments related to the Perkins grant, Title II funds, and the Standard Operated Program adjustments. The city agreed to fill the remaining gap by taking on a negative contingency for the second straight year.
While some council members, including Steve Claffey and Carolyn Dull, were apprehensive of another negative contingency, Staunton Chief Financial Officer Phil Trayer assuaged those fears, saying that last year’s contingency had already been covered, and that current projections showed that the city could likely cover the new one.
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“I can assure you, we do not plan on making this a habit,” Trayer said.
On top of the agreement to fill the gap, both the school board and city council were happy to hear that a new formula for revenue sharing based on actual revenue from property taxes was set to go in place moving forward. That revenue sharing formula is expected to be more stable than the split that has been used historically. According to Trayer and interim city manager Leslie Beauregard, this will be the first time that a formula based on actual, instead of projected, revenue will be used in Staunton.
The city also affirmed their support for upcoming school capital projects, including those at Shelburne Middle School and the maintenance facility.
Prior to the meeting, Mayor Andrea Oakes told The News Leader, “This process has been a little more exciting than we’ve wanted it to be.”
School board member Ken Venable agreed that it had been tumultuous, but the growth was necessary to work together at the end of the day.
“[City council doesn’t] always understand the schools, and sometimes we do not understand the city, ”Venable said.
Venable, along with Superintendent Garett Smith and other school board members, also spoke at the work session, showing their support for the compromise. Smith was glad to be in a position where the school board could say that schools are fully funded, and to be back at what he terms a “competitive advantage” against other neighboring school systems.
Dull was also concerned about being competitive in the area, as she asked Smith about why the schools had only enacted a 6% pay raise for teachers when both Waynesboro and Augusta County had higher raises. Smith noted that despite greater raises being handed out in neighboring localities, the pay in Staunton would still be higher than others.
Still, the compromise seemed to satisfy both the school board and city council, as they noted that despite the excitement of the last few weeks, it had been important for the end goal.
“We’ve got to get uncomfortable to move forward and make progress,” Smith said.
This was evident when he also stated that bonuses would be instituted this year for staff, despite his reservations against the idea. This was echoed by council member Carolyn Dull, who opined that bonuses were “a cheap way” to get more money into the hands of teachers. This is because bonuses are taxed, but do not count toward retirement and are more of short-term stopgaps.
That idea of short-term stopgaps is an important one, as Staunton Education Association President Christine Hawley laid out while council chambers were emptying following the school portion of the budget work session.
Hawley contends that this agreement is still the barebones of what the schools need to operate, pointing to the idea that the schools had originally requested funding for 27 position where current solutions would only fund seven.
There were plenty of positive takeaways for school employees, such as the new revenue sharing formula and the stability it would bring to the budgeting process and the proposed raises and bonuses for the upcoming year. But Hawley echoed both Dull and Smith’s sentiments of bonuses being short-term measures that would not contribute to necessary pay changes to improve the quality of life for school employees.
One item brought up by Hawley to The News Leader was the index used to determine step increases on the salary schedule for teachers, which currently sits at 0.9. According to Hawley, when that 0.9 figure was instituted there were promises that it would eventually be adjusted upwards towards 1.2. This issue is not one that is new to the school board, or even to city council, as council member Amy Darby was on the school board at the time, per the SEA president.
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Addressing these issues is important to help maintain teachers in the area, as salaries are worth less and less relative to rising cost of living and inflation. “Teachers who choose to stay for the longer term are likely to see decreases in pay relative to cost of living,” Hawley asserted.
These pay issues facing teachers also face support staff, but “even more so,” per Hawley, thanks to a lack of reasonable living wages for support staff and a limited applicant pool for those jobs. These issues date back to the Great Recession when the state of Virginia instituted a support staff cap. That cap has never changed.
“In the end, schools need support staff,” Hawley said.
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