Prince William schools want to use $5.8 million in federal stimulus

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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Prince William County school officials are asking county supervisors once again to let them utilize federal stimulus funds to cover rising costs and avoid dipping into their reserves.

School Board members voted, 7 to 1, Wednesday to request that supervisors allow them to use about $5.8 million from the $17 million allocated to them in the Federal Education Jobs Fund bill to cover one-time costs associated with an influx of students. The remainder of the funds, the resolution states, would be addressed during the fiscal 2012 budget process. School Board member Lisa E. Bell (Neabsco) cast the dissenting vote.

Dave Cline, associate superintendent of finance for the schools, said enrollment this year has exceeded projections by 807 students. School officials must come up with about $5.8 million to fund the influx in enrollment and remain in compliance with state standards, Cline said, adding that the state will provide an additional $2.9 million for the new students. If supervisors don't approve the stimulus money, Cline said, school officials will have to dip into their reserve, which has about $7 million.

"Our general reserve balance would then be extremely low," Cline said. "If there is any crisis in the [next] year, we would then have a bigger problem."

County supervisors and school officials have been at odds over the issue since the jobs bill was passed in August. Virginia received almost $250 million from the $10 billion bill to allocate across the state. The bill's intention was to help offset layoffs and fund new jobs.

Supervisors said they do not approve of the schools spending one-time money for ongoing costs. School officials, however, said the schools already hire, on average, 500-plus teachers annually and are getting ready to open three schools next year.

"We had a meeting with [County Executive] Melissa Peacor and members of her staff about this, and it was a very, very positive meeting," School Superintendent Steven L. Walts said. "We left feeling this would get the support of the board of supervisors."

Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said that the Board of County Supervisors will not support the School Board's request.

"The superintendent needs to know staff is not running the show; it's the elected body, . . . and our county is very well aware of that," Stewart said. "The superintendent clearly doesn't understand that. We've made it very clear we would not appropriate one-time federal funds for ongoing county costs."

Cline said the funding request for this year is essentially a one-time cost to address the current influx in students. The state has identified a process the school can go through to use the other funds for one-time costs -- such as capital costs, teacher training and educational equipment -- and still meet the bill's requirements, Cline said. If the supervisors don't release the funds to the school system, the money would return to the governor, who could redistribute it, Cline said. If the governor opts not to redistribute the funds, then the money would be returned to the federal government, he said.

"I can guarantee their request is going to be denied," Stewart said. "The proper time to consider use of these funds, if ever, is during the fiscal 2012 budget hearing, which occurs early next year. . . . They shouldn't be depending on one-time government funds for permanent hires. It's not fiscally responsible, and the board will not collude with such fiscally irresponsible behavior."

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