The Franklin News-Post|
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
|Communication with schools is top priority|
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer
Communication remains the key to establishing a better working relationship between the Franklin County Board of Supervisors and school board.
That's the consensus reached during the board of supervisors' annual retreat Friday.
"We are always looking for ways to improve the process," county Administrator Rick Huff told the board at the meeting held in the county's government center.
Huff was referring to the budget process, which again this year proved to be a bumpy road for both boards.
Gills Creek Supervisor Bob Camicia said school budgets should spell out what are actual needs, the bottom line items the school system must have for the coming year, versus wants or things that are desired but may not be feasible because of budget restraints.
Camicia said county schools are already funded "well beyond" basic needs, and the supervisors have a difficult time discerning the schools' actual priorities.
"Where are your real needs?" he said, referring to a question that he said should be directed to the school board.
Several supervisors complained that during the budget process earlier this year, the schools' proposed budget for 2013-14 changed more than once, leaving the board to wonder exactly what the priorities were, even after the budget was presented as "bare bones."
But Blue Ridge District Supervisor Bobby Thompson said distinguishing between wants and needs is difficult in education because they are often "moving targets."
"The line (between wants and needs) gets blurry," he said.
Another issue is carryover funding, which leads to much confusion and mistrust between the two boards, according to supervisors.
For example, during the budget process for 2013-14, the school system pleaded for a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax, which would have meant about $1.2 million extra for the schools.
However, carryover funding from the 2012-13 school year may have exceeded that figure.
That level of carryover funding irked several board members, especially considering the county's contribution to the schools this fiscal year increased by more than $1 million.
Camicia said supervisors were told during the budget process that carryover funding would be between $200,000 and $400,000, and then it turns out to be almost $2 million, which includes $568,000 in energy fund reserves.
"What that really says is the schools did a great job saving money," he said. "But they don't know where they are financially. They have no idea where they are in expenditures. They need to get their financial house in order."
Camicia made it clear, though, that this is not a matter of the school board or anyone else trying to do anything wrong. But it is a source of "consternation" for both boards.
"School board members don't really know where they are financially," he said. "They need the resources to get their finances straight."
Camicia said former school board chairman Ed Jamison, who resigned during the budget process because of the schools' proposed cuts to athletic programs, "quit over something that really was not an issue (since the money was actually there to pay for the programs)."
As supervisors expressed their concerns with carryover funding, county Finance Director Vince Copenhaver explained to the board why the school system had that much in carryover funding and why it was difficult to predict.
"There was about $2 million remaining in local funds (for the schools) at June 30 (end of the 2012-13 fiscal year)," he said.
Breaking down that figure, Copenhaver said $568,000 was from the energy fund balance, which carried over each year to cover any spikes in the cost of fuel.
That leaves about $1.4 million, he said.
Schools received an unanticipated state surplus of $320,575 from additional adult education regional program funds, he said, money that otherwise would have come from county funding.
The schools also received unanticipated money from the federal government, $347,504, the last drawdown of federal education jobs funds. There was no way to be sure when this money would come, he added.
Subtracting those two figures from the carryover funding leaves $763,921, the final adjusted carryover funds.
Copenhaver said that the school system's expenditures are tallied each month so they know exactly where they stand.
"They (school board members) can have all the information at their fingertips," he said. "They can run the exact reports (that the county does)," providing a snapshot of where the schools' finances are at any given point.
Schools Superintendent Mark Church said school board members do receive a financial report.
"We present them a financial statement each month of revenues and expenditures," he said.
"It (misperceptions about the school's budget) is a little frustrating," he added. "We are good custodians of the people's money."
Church said the school system is operating with less federal and state money and is always looking for ways to save money.
"We always try to do things better," he said. "On expenditures, we are very tight."
Church said the budget was cut by more than $1 million for this year by reducing personnel and other expenditures.
The extra $300,000 that was allocated to the schools by supervisors was a "godsend," he said.
As far as wants and needs are concerned, Church said there are plenty of needs.
"Everything is justifiable and needed in a certain situation," he said, pointing out that alternative education, some career tech programs, professional development opportunities and programs to reduce the dropout rate are all needed, but have been "taken off our budget."
Church said carryover funding happens in all school systems and in most systems is primarily used for capital expenses.
"We budget on what we think it's going to cost, but we do count on some carryover to be used for capital expenditures," he said, reiterating that the county has always done that in the past.
However, Church said the school system is trying to reduce carryover "as much as possible," but it's not possible to predict the exact amount because of the unpredictability in some budget areas, from the number of substitute teachers that will be needed to how much state and federal funds will be allocated.
In the meantime, he said the school system is continuing to be cut and expenditures are rising.
Schools don't have any contingency funds, he said, and simply cannot spend more than is allocated.
"We work for the county and we're not doing anything that's wrong," he said. "We're doing some things to save as much as possible."
Thompson suggested that a budget committee be established with representatives from the county and schools to share information on the process and how to make it better, and to look at the "big picture" of all county funding.
"We can let people know when we have the (budget) information," he said. "We need to get rid of the 'us versus them' mentality. We are all here to try to make a better county."
Mistrust between the two boards is a "major issue," he said, and that trust needs to be rebuilt.
Huff suggested that the proposed school budget be presented in a particular format, which the county can require.
"Maybe we need to ask them to give it to us in a different way," he said, spelling out priorities and what can be accomplished with available resources.
"We can give them a target number (county dollars) and ask them to give us everything (they need), not holding back, with priorities," he said. "Priorities are crucial. We heard (the requests) this year but did not understand what the priorities were."
The issue of needs and affordability causes friction, he added.
Huff said it may be beneficial if the school system knew as far ahead of time as possible the bottom line on the amount of money that will be available.
That way, he said, they can work with that understanding, then list priorities that may fall below that line, priorities that may be funded if extra money becomes available.
Rocky Mount District Supervisor Charles Wagner agreed.
"We have to have a better understanding of where we are and how we are going to get there (where we think the schools need to be)," he said. "They need to explain why they need more."
"Franklin County Public Schools continue to make every effort to present a transparent and lean budget to the board of supervisors," said school board Chair Sarah Alexander. "Work is ongoing to identify areas of budget unpredictability and to address those areas throughout the year."
"Additionally, the school board is hopeful that we can establish more open and constructive dialogue with the board of supervisors in an attempt to improve the budget process," she added.
Supervisors Chairman David Cundiff said communications is the "biggest problem we have."
"The communications problem is what is hurting us," he said, adding that both boards need to be on the same page and that is the only way to make sure the public understands what is going on.
"It's a process issue," Camicia said. "When it was clear there would be no tax increase, communication faltered at that point."
Camicia was referring to action taken by the board to include a 2-cent tax increase in the county's advertised proposed 2013-14 budget, only to take it away before it was finalized.
"It was clear board members did not want that tax increase," he said.
Blackwater District Supervisor Cline Brubaker said better communications would have helped him understand the number of new teachers the school system hired for this year.
"What transpired at the end of the year?" he asked, saying 46 new teachers were hired but he did not know how may were replacing teachers who left the system.
Supervisors are entitled to an "overview" of these actions, he said, with explanations of why they were needed when other positions were cut to save money.
"Taxpayers need to know," he said. "We are footing the bill."
Huff polled the board on suggestions they have to improve the budgeting process.
Those included more transparency in budgets, accountability, open dialogue between the two boards and better discussions of specifics.
"We have the whole county to fund," said Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson, adding that's why priorities are important not only for the schools but for all county departments.
Cundiff said the scheduled Aug. 19 meeting of the two boards has been postponed until after the November election.
But school board member Bill Brush said the board does not want to wait that long and will request a meeting with supervisors before then.