School Board approves $53 million FY24 budget

By Heather Michon

Just one day after the Board of Supervisors passed its FY24 budget, the School Board met to finalize and approve its own budget numbers. 

This proved to be a challenging process. 

The School Board requested the county allocate around $2.7 million above the previous year’s baseline to help bring teacher and staff salaries more in line with nearby school districts. A compensation study completed in recent months showed that Fluvanna’s salaries are considerably lower than those in Louisa, Albemarle and Goochland counties and the city of Charlottesville. This has spurred a loss of talent to better-paying localities and made Fluvanna less competitive in recruiting experienced staff.

After weeks of discussion and debate, supervisors allocated around $2.2 million toward the request. On Thursday night (April 20), the school board had to figure out how to make up the $400,000 shortfall. 

“I am absolutely committed to preserving the compensation pieces as we’ve discussed and worked hard to come up with something fair,” said Perrie Johnson (Fork Union).

The problem is, there wasn’t much in the school budget that could easily be reallocated. This led to painful debates over line items like custodian contracts and whether they could pay for half of a mandated literacy curriculum in one year and defer the rest to FY25. 

There was also a debate over the impact of shifting about $300,000 allocated to estimated increases in health insurance costs and putting it toward salary. 

While none of the members were comfortable with a scenario that might end up with employees having to pay higher premiums, Chair James Kelley (Palmyra) argued that putting an emphasis on increasing salaries benefited employees in the long run, because it not only impacted their annual earnings, it increased their eventual Social Security and Virginia Retirement System (VRS) payouts.

Superintendent Peter Gretz suggested that the board might consider taking some projected end-of-year surplus and putting that into a fund to offset health insurance increases next year. 

Kelley said that the idea felt to him like “cooking the books” by allocating surplus funds. Surpluses have usually been returned to the county at the end of the budget year. 

Johnson later countered that, by her estimation, the school board had returned $1 million in surplus funds in recent years, making a one-time holdback of $300,000 somewhat less significant. 

Complicating all these issues is the lack of clarity from the state. With legislators in Richmond still deadlocked over the budget, school districts can only guess at how much – or how little – is coming their way. When those state figures finally come in, it is possible that the budget could be fully funded with no changes needed. 

Johnson eventually moved that the board make up the shortfall using $165,000 in retention bonuses, $140,000 from the literary curriculum fund, $18,000 from custodian contracts, and $294,363 from health insurance.

“I am still struggling with the literary piece,” said Kelley. “We told the supervisors we were going to work on that.” But while he found it “problematic,” he was unwilling to hold the budget hostage as a result.

In the end, the board voted 3-2 to approve an FY24 budget of $53,240,498. As with the initial budget proposal in February, Andrew Pullen (Columbia) and Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham) voted against the finalized budget.

Code of conduct

Another long-running discussion came to an end during the meeting as the members finally approved the Code of Conduct.

Pullen continued his opposition to some of the provisions in the code, including one that stated board members would “bring about changes through legal and ethical procedures, upholding and enforcing all laws, state regulations, and court orders pertaining to schools.” He argued that he would not enforce executive orders or laws that he did not personally believe were ethical.

He ended up voting against the Code of Conduct, which passed on a vote of 4-1.

Scheduling controversy

On April 10, Pullen posted on his official Facebook account that, “this is the second time in two months that regularly scheduled school board meetings have been rescheduled with little notice and without communicating with the Columbia or Cunningham District Representatives. This has been an ongoing issue for at least two years and it must stop now!”

Kelley apologized to both men for the oversight during the meeting. “My goal is never to eliminate voices from the table,” he said. “We’re so much better as a board when every single one of us is here.” 

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