School Board discusses tenuous budget rebuilding

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School Board work sessions often assume the tone of a rather tedious grad school seminar.  The five elected members, guided by the superintendent or one of his staff, worked through stacks of material, occasionally posing questions, but generally focused on mastering the substance of some challenge facing the Chesterfield schools in difficult financial times.

The board’s February 7 work session started off in the usual mode.  Wells Fargo health care expert Claire Holbrook, introduced by David Myers, Chesterfield’s assistant superintendent for budget and finance, led the board through the complexities of two different models for paying for employee health care.

An hour into the session, when Myers invited the board to spend a little time thinking about “rebuilding” from the deep cuts of recent years.  Heads lifted.  Eyes brightened.  A few grins broke out.  Clover Hill district member Dianne Smith, looked around the table and said, “This is exciting!”

Myers said the discussion was extremely preliminary.  Revenues from Federal, state and county sources remain severely limited.  The present economic recovery is still tenuous and subject to new shocks, especially from overseas, and Myers said any “rebuilding” will have to wait until at least the 2014 budget year.

Myers laid out a suggested process for gathering input, based on an elaborate flow-chart. Stakeholders from every part of the educational community - from Central Office staff to building principals to classroom teachers to the public - will have numerous opportunities for input.  This input will be filtered through several advisory bodies before reaching the school board.  A key player in this process will be the board’s budget advisory committee.

The four board members present - board chairperson Patricia Carpenter was indisposed - had a number of suggestions for making the process more inclusive.  

Board Vice-Chairman and Dale District Member, David Wyman urged that the rebuilding process not simply be looked at as a matter of automatically restoring resources cut during the lean years.  

Agreeing with Wyman, Ms. Smith suggested that teachers and school administrators have learned to do without some things which were once thought necessary, thus freeing the board to consider adding different resources as the schools rebuild.

Also noting that updates to the county’s Comprehensive Plan will change some of the things schools are called upon to do in the future, Bermuda District member Carrie Coyner, along with all board members present, agreed that greater involvement of classroom teachers in the budget planning process was fundamental to the process.  

Smith called for the budget advisory committee to begin work as early as possible, presenting updates throughout the year.

Summing up this first glance at the rebuilding process, Myers said that the staff and advisory bodies would need to make a distinction between “efficiencies” and “cuts”.  Things that the schools have learned to do without might be considered “efficiencies” and not restored.  Other things, which the schools have missed, constitute “cuts”, and would go on the list of resources to be restored as the schools rebuild.

Budget advisory committee member Marshall Trammell, a twenty-year school board veteran, noted after the meeting that course offerings sacrificed during the lean years will almost certainly be a priority when it comes to rebuilding.

“Some people don’t understand how much you lose when you cut course offerings,” said Trammell.  “Those losses affect the perception of our schools’ quality, which is vital to future economic growth.”

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