Public hearings on the county budget begin April 7, with school officials presenting their budget to the Board of Supervisors on April 8. In advance of the hearings, Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech explains the relative comity expected this year between the supervisors and school system.
By recent standards, this year's school budget debate has been, unlike the weather, unusually mild. There are several reasons for this. The beginning of the current economic recession several years ago gave us clear warning that budgeting over the past few years -- and this year -- would not be business as usual. Reductions in revenue and their concomitant reductions in expenditures have been part of our budget cycle for the last two fiscal years. Last year at this time, we suffered a $46 million reduction in state aid. All signs pointed to further reductions in state aid for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Anticipating reductions in state aid while faced with student growth and escalating costs in health insurance and retirement benefits, our school system began -- three years ago -- to cut back on expenditures and program expansion. The School Board showed restraint and pushed the resulting fund balances forward rather than spending the available cash. Certainly, the school division faced a growing population of students in need of remedial services and many facilities in need of repair. Nevertheless, the dollars were not spent.
The fiscal 2004 budget was developed with no increases in expenditures other than for student growth and employee salary and benefits. It also included a $30 million anticipated reduction in state aid.
Just prior to the release of the school budget, Gov. Mark R. Warner released the state budget, and, true to his word, education was spared. The General Assembly concluded its session without making significant cuts in education aid. That is significantly different from what is going on in other states. In Oregon, teachers have agreed to work two weeks without pay to avert shortening the school year by as much as five weeks. In Texas, local officials are preparing to cut extracurricular activities, elective subjects, and teaching and counseling positions.
Since state funding was not reduced as had been expected, the School Board had $30 million in its budget that would not be needed to make up a state revenue shortfall. This allowed us to discard the $19 million in program cuts we would have had to make and to reduce the amount of the transfer that we were requesting from the county.
Again, faced with the challenges of the state SOLs and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the School Board could easily have applied the "found money" in our budget to additional and much-needed programs and services. However, the school system is an integral part of this community. All of us are taxpayers, and we have been subjected to significant increases in real estate taxes. We all tend to agree that alternate sources of funding need to be found. The school system recognizes the limitations of the property tax and does not want to add to the taxpayers' burden.
Several weeks ago, the county executive released a budget that provides the schools with a 6 percent increase in the transfer. The county budget and the school budget are only $3.5 million apart. Recall that a year ago, the differential was $61 million.
Our supervisors are faced with difficult decisions. Besides funding our schools, they must also fund other vital services required by our community and provide some tax relief for homeowners. We know that they will do their best on behalf of our schools.
For those who were sitting back and looking forward to the annual budget quarrels, sorry to disappoint you.