City fills $3 million gap in school budget

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 When Governor Bob McDonnell released a state budget that changed the retirement plan for public school employees and reallocated a portion of local sales tax dollars, the Charlottesville School Board was left facing a deficit of $4 million for 2012-2013.

After two months of wrestling with the new reality, the school board has found a way to make $1 million in cuts, and the city has agreed to fill the rest of the $3 million gap with one-time funds.

On Thursday, March 1, the school board voted on the official 2012-2013 budget, which increased by about $190,000 from last year’s budget to roughly $70 million.

Changes in this year’s budget include implementing shorter contracts for assistant principals and counselors, eliminating three secretarial positions, and reducing grant funding for teachers. In grades five through eight, class sizes will also increase.

“Our teachers and parents value small class sizes and so do we,” said school board chairman Ned Michie, explaining that he hoped the increases would not become a trend.
Classes, for this year at least, will grow only by one student.

But what about those snazzy new tablet computers that Charlottesville High School and Buford Middle School students received? If the school board was struggling for funding, why did they spend $2.4 million on glorified iPods?

Michie said the tablets aren’t the problem and will ultimately save money for the schools by reducing the district’s demand for costly textbooks that need to be replaced regularly.
“Textbooks are out of date the day they’re printed,” said Michie.

The tablets can serve simply as books, but they will also provide more interactive learning opportunities for hands-on students, he said. Michie estimates that over the course of the next four years, schools will spend an extra $250,000 each year on technology.

The real question posed in this year’s budget conversation is how the district will make up its gap next year, without more one-time funding from the city.

According to City Councilor Dave Norris, tax rates should remain the same, but the city may not be able to fill another gap like the one this year. “There will just have to be some structural changes,” he said.

One such structural change is the postponement of the reconfiguration of the school system. The $1.5 million set aside for that project was redirected toward the deficit, and according to Michie, the reorganization of Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary School will likely not take place for another five years.

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