Funding fight: City and school board struggle with budget as statewide activism gathers steam

Activists hold signs over the bypass to advocate for increased state investment in public schools. Photo: John Robinson Activists hold signs over the bypass to advocate for increased state investment in public schools. Photo: John Robinson

“FUND OUR SCHOOLS” read the twinkling electric signs over the Dairy Road footbridge on the evening of January 29. Students, parents, teachers, and activists held the individual letters, making the simple demand that the state devote more money to public education. The message was met with a stream of supportive honks from drivers on the 250 Bypass below. 

“We’re in this exciting moment where Democrats have control in both chambers,” said Brionna Nomi, education organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center, which coordinated the demonstration. “So we’re hoping to make some movement on state funding legislation for public schools.”

In particular, the group supports bills in both the House of Delegates and State Senate that would repeal public education spending limits put in place after the 2008 recession.

The Charlottesville protest comes less than a week after hundreds of teachers from around the state rallied in Richmond to make similar demands. In Virginia, the state holds power over cities and counties when it comes to generating revenue and dispensing funds. Nomi says local districts have to pick up the slack for what the state does not provide, and that’s an undue burden. “We need to generate more revenue, and we believe that that’s the responsibility of legislators,” she says.

That burden was on display last week when the Charlottesville City School Board presented its annual budget request to City Council and the city manager. 

In part because of state funding cuts, the board requested a budget increase of $4.5 million. But City Manager Tarron Richardson said he’d hoped the figure would be more like $2.1 million. 

The city is trying to cut back its own budget, and the disparity between the school’s request and the city’s anticipated number is significant. “I want to help as much as we can, but that additional two-plus million will really impact us in terms of trying to close our gap,” Richardson said. 

The city increased the school’s budget by $2.7 million in fiscal year 2019 and $3.4 million in fiscal year 2020, for a total of $57 million last year.

The school district’s request provides for the creation of a handful of new positions, including an additional orchestra instructor for Walker Upper Elementary, where one conductor currently teaches 199 students, and a “specialist for annual giving,” a new position that would solicit philanthropic contributions to the public schools. “That’s a position the board has desired for quite a number of years,” said Superintendent Rosa Atkins.

Hundreds of students are enrolled in a new engineering program at Walker, but Buford Middle School doesn’t have sufficient engineering faculty, so the district also hopes to hire someone to keep the program running as those students transition schools.

But the bulk of the requested budget increase—$2.8 of the $4.5 million—would go toward insurance and salaries for teachers and staff. “We are in the people business,” said school board member Jennifer McKeever. “So much of this is so they continue to be insured and able to live around here.”

Charlottesville’s skyrocketing property values have serious effects on the schools. Teachers need to earn more to live here comfortably, and the school district receives less funding from the state. 

Virginia distributes money based on each district’s relative need, measured through a metric called Local Composite Index. LCI takes into account the value of property owned by each school district, and this year, CCS’s property value increased “about 23 percent,” according to Atkins. In the eyes of the state, CCS is less needy than other localities and will therefore receive less state money. That’s one reason the district’s request to the city was higher than Richardson’s ideal figure.

Council will have to work with the schools and the city manager’s office to close the gap between Richardson’s number and CCS’s request.

“I don’t have too many comments at this time, because we haven’t received the full presentation on our budget,” said Mayor Nikuyah Walker at the work session. “Once we have that meeting I’ll have a better understanding. Just in case people are wondering why I’m quiet.” 

Those discussions will continue through the spring, but according to Atkins, the budget may not be finalized until June.

Meanwhile, the long-term future of the district includes a major school reconfiguration. Buford will expand to include sixth graders, elementary schools will add fifth grade, and Walker will become a citywide preschool. The district plans on hiring an architectural firm this month, but there won’t be a cost estimate for the project until 2021. 

The city allocated $3 million to the project in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, but some early estimates say the reconfiguration could cost as much as $58 million. 

“We will not know how much the project will cost until it gets at least partially through the design process,” says Michael Goddard, a senior project manager with the city. “As of the present, no funds have been allocated for construction of the project. It will be up to city leadership to direct funding for construction.”

 

Correction 2/5: Updated to reflect that the city has not yet hired a design firm for the school reconfiguration process. 

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