State Budget Tinkering Impacts Schools

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by Valerie Garner

The regular session of the Virginia legislature concluded late Saturday night with a watered down transportation bill void of any serious funding. Democrats proposed indexing the gas tax to inflation while Governor Bob McDonnell proposed diversion of a portion of sales tax revenue to transportation.

Neither made it out of conference. However, McDonnell was successful with his “naming rights” proposal for Virginia interchanges, bridges and highways. Exhausted Senators immediately sought to interject some humor into the moment by producing signs “naming” their desks.

Under pressure from the governor, two bills were rushed through at the last minute to reform the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). This will cost the Roanoke City School Board $4.3 million. Without a state budget RCPS is working with the governor’s proposed budget. Both the House and the Senate versions are more generous to schools.

Roanoke City School Board Chairman David Carson said in an email, “while there is some increased state revenue under each proposal (a reasonably large chunk of which is because the RCPS student population is increasing), an increased VRS contribution rate wipes this out and then some.”

“These are tough times, and I know the budget folks [in Richmond] are hard at it, but it would be nice to know what we are in fact facing next year budget-wise,” said Carson.

The school board approved a $147 million budget Tuesday night. Deputy Superintendent Curt Baker believed that the state sales tax estimate of $12.8 million was overstated and used the more conservative amount of $12.2. Adding $3 million for raises leaves the schools with a projected shortfall of $10.3 million. The shortfall will come from the $12.7 million unassigned fund (savings).

Roanoke City Director of Finance Ann Shawver said, “We’ll move along with our [budget] process as best we can – it has happened before and what we try to do is use some conservatism.” She hopes the state will present the city with a surprise uptick in funding. Though the city is on a separate pension system, the Sheriff’s Department is on the VRS and that will impact the city.

The city’s retirement system will change too. One option was presented at a briefing to council last year. “We are continuing to analyze different options with actuaries,” said Sawver. Most of that is in the public safety area. “We do benchmark against the VRS plan … we’re keeping tabs on what is going on at the state level.”

Before returning to council Shawver said they would again reach out for input from city employees. It will be the end of the summer before they will have anything to bring back to council so reform for city employees will be put off at least until 2014.