Friday, August 24, 2012

Fort Lewis Elementary in budgetary cross hairs

No decision has been made, the Roanoke County superintendent said, but the school may close.

Roanoke County schools Superintendent Lorraine Lange met with teachers at Fort Lewis Elementary earlier this week to let them know closing the school after this academic year is a real possibility, as the division faces another financial crunch when budgeting for 2013-14.

"No decision has been made," Lange said Thursday morning. "Between saving jobs and closing a school, I would close a school."

The school board over the weekend held a preliminary discussion about the 2013-14 fiscal year budget. Closing Fort Lewis and transferring its students to Glenvar and Masons Cove elementary schools came up as a way to save about $450,000 annually after the first year.

"It's an emotional issue," Lange said. "I thought it was fair to talk about it now ... rather than wait and do it in March. It may not happen. It may."

There are several variables that won't be absolute for several months, including how much state and local funding the division will receive.

"The board of supervisors has not come out and said anything really optimistic," said Penny Hodge, the assistant superintendent of finance.

The schools and county use a revenue sharing agreement to provide the funding for the division's operating budget, which includes the day-to-day costs of running its schools. The school board may see no increase or it may face a reduced local allocation given the current economic conditions.

Also, Lange is particularly concerned about sequestration — across-the-board federal cuts of about $395,000 to $461,000 in funds the division receives to educate economically disadvantaged and special needs students. Congress' failure to adopt a budget this year triggered sequestration, but the cuts of 7.8 percent and 9.1 percent have been postponed to 2014.

Regardless of where the funds come from, the division is required by state and federal law and by students' Individualized Education Programs to provide services to students with special needs.

"We still have to keep special ed teachers," Lange said, even though funding for those crucial personnel may be cut.

The school board on Saturday approved spending almost $1 million to install air conditioning in the gymnasiums of the 10 county elementary schools without cooling systems. The board also set aside $72,318 to air-condition the gym at Fort Lewis if the school remains open.

The school board voted to pay for those one-time construction projects from its minor capital budget. The school division, like many government bodies, maintains budgets for capital projects and maintenance of its facilities separate from the operating budget.

An agreement with the board of supervisors allows the school division to put a third of its year-end balance aside for minor capital projects, such as the air conditioning, and the other two-thirds into major capital for big ticket projects, such as rebuilding Cave Spring Middle School.

"We don't really have any choice unless we go back and ask them to change it," Hodge said.

Capital expenditures are usually one-time expenses whereas operational savings, such as closing a school, occur year after year, Lange noted.

Her public discussions with the school board and her meetings with Fort Lewis staff are consistent with the way she and the board handled the closure of Bent Mountain Elementary School in 2010.

Fort Lewis since 2010 has been on the chopping block during the school board's annual budgeting processes. But talks about shuttering the school in western Roanoke County go back further than that. Fort Lewis actually closed temporarily because of low enrollment in the early 1980s, Lange said.

The county school division administers 27 schools and last year served more than 14,000 students. Its operating budget for 2012-13 is about $131 million.

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