Lessons Learned from the Assistant Superintendent

**Cross posted from Suffolk HRTP **

By: Beau B

Last Tuesday (4/16) we had Assistant Superintendent Kevin Alston at our regular meeting. We grilled him about the school’s budget and the school system’s relationship with the city & council.

The biggest challenge facing our public school system is unfunded mandates. The funding from the state and federal governments has dropped in recent years, but the mandates have not.

One instance, Mr. Alston told us that he is mandated to provide transportation for homeless students, even when they are now outside the district. He told us that this federal mandate was costing a minimum of $3,000 a week – and that money was NOT provided by the state or federal government, that was money that had to come out of the local contribution. The VA Pilot even did a story about this back in 2009. That’s just one example of the way mandates are eating away at the school’s budget. There are plenty of other ways that unfunded, or even partially funded mandates are eating away at the school budget.

Another reason that seemed to stand out to me, lack of state funding. In Virginia, the state primarily funds the locality’s public school system, with the locality (aka city) kicking in a share, then whatever other monies the school system can get out of the federal government or fees & charges is to cover the rest. Thing is, the state funding is based solely on population, or number of students in the system. But what the state is NOT taking into consideration is the land mass of the locality.

One way this affects Suffolk Public Schools is in the Health Department. According to the state, as Mr. Alston informed us, Suffolk only needs 14 nurses. Therefore the state only sends enough money to fund 14 nurses. However, as we all know, the city has 20 schools, and each school must have a nurse. Further complicating this matter is the mandates that require certain kids in the system with extremely special needs require a dedicated nurse on staff. The result is that Suffolk Public School needs 25 nurses. Therefore, the salaries & benefits of roughly 11 nurses is coming out of the money the city gives to the school system.

There are some ways the school system could save a few pennies, one of them being to share services with the city for things like maintenance and groundskeeping. Reducing the School Board’s benefits is another area where they can save a few dollars. Currently the School Board is getting 90% of the their healthcare covered by the school system, as well as retirement.

However, this fight will continue to happen every year. Both City Council & the School Board feel the other is in the wrong. The Council wants the School Board to understand that the city just does NOT have the funds to give any more to the schools, and the School Board feels that Council does not have education as a priority, an impression that was further cemented when Council approved big raises for several of the upper echelon in city government this last year. Until these two entities can come together, every year in April will be a big public battle.

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