School board budget session looks at challenges ahead

By Heather Michon

The Fluvanna County School Board met for an in-depth seminar on Wednesday night (Jan. 24) as planning for the FY2025 budget gets underway.

Superintendent Peter Gretz and Finance Director Brenda Gilliam took a three-hour deep dive into school finances and the challenges presented by the Virginia Legislature’s evolving budget.

In the FY24 budget, the total school budget was $53 million, with over $20 million coming from Fluvanna County and the remainder from state and federal funding. To help raise teacher and staff salaries to bring them in line with competing school districts and to increase student mental health resources, the schools requested $2.7 million above the previous year’s baseline. Supervisors eventually approved $2.2 million of this request.

On Wednesday, Gretz and Gilliam indicated that the funding had helped close the salary gap for many positions. Focus this year might shift to those staff positions still lagging behind, including custodial staff and cafeteria workers. 

Enrollment for 2024-25 is projected to be 3,300 students. Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham) noted that this was a drop of 300 students in 16 years, and questioned why there were requests for more teachers and support staff to serve a smaller student population.

Gretz said educational methods and expectations have changed significantly over the years – and so have the students. 

“The needs are dramatically different now than they were 16 years ago,” he said. For whatever reason, students today “have less ability to regulate their behavior and handle social stresses.”

Along with requests for staffing increases, the board will have to figure out how to keep salaries competitive with other divisions and how to mitigate the impacts of a potential 8-10 percent increase in health insurance rates.

How much funding to expect from the state is an open question. Democrats now control both chambers in the Virginia legislature, and they are likely to clash with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin over school funding.

To give one example, Gilliam noted that Youngkin’s budget included a one-time one-percent bonus for teachers and staff. Meanwhile, the Legislature is looking at an across-the-board three percent increase in the first year and seven percent in the second year.

In 2023, the state didn’t finalize its two-year budget until September, a six-month impasse that left school divisions across the state in a quandary.

“It’s very difficult for a small division when there’s so much flux in the state funding process,” said Gilliam.

“It’s terrible,” Gretz added. “This year, we were well into spending a budget that technically didn’t exist.”

The next several weeks will be busy ones for the board. Gretz will present his budget proposal on Feb. 7, with adoption by the board scheduled for Feb 14. and presentation to the Board of Supervisors planned for Feb. 21.

Supervisors will debate and refine the proposed school budget along with other county expenditures throughout March and early April. Adoption of the county’s FY25 budget and tax rates is currently scheduled for April 1.

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