What's it like to wrestle with a school budget?
At the latest FCPS Superintendent Community Roundtable, participants got a first-hand look at the hard financial decisions school superintendents make.
by Adele Uphaus
MANAGING EDITOR AND CORRESPONDENT
Participants in Wednesday’s school-community roundtable hosted by Fredericksburg City Public Schools were almost finished allocating an additional $1 million in funding when event MC Lori Mueller tossed in a few last-minute curve balls to the mock-budgeting event.
“We have some last-minute funding requests that have come in,” Mueller announced.
The School Board promised to fund - at $25,000 - the additional supports for English language learners that were requested by high schoolers who participated in a recent “Students Speak Out” session. There were new requests for weapons detection systems at $25,000 and snow removal equipment at $75,000.
The last-minute requests came on top of requests from six department leaders for funding that already totaled $500,000 more than was available.
Their requests included $250,000 for a new literacy curriculum; $75,000 for a sign-on and retention bonus for teachers; $250,000 to repair a failing roof at one of the elementary schools; $280,000 for two special education buses; $400,000 to hire four behavior specialists; and $200,000 for new classroom projectors.
Roundtable participants had to decide which requests to fund and find creative solutions to meet the unfunded needs.
“I feel like I’m on ‘Shark Tank,’” said Mike George, chief operation and information officer, before pitching his request for new classroom projectors.
The exercise was meant to give participants a sense of the difficult decisions that go into funding a school division.
Finance was the topic of the most recent in a series of Superintendent Community Roundtables the city school division has hosted, beginning last year.
It’s a topic that previous participants indicated they want to know more about, said Jen Brody, the school division’s chief financial officer.
“And we want you to know how we spend our money,” she said.
Brody presented an overview of funding sources that contribute to the school division’s budget. Fredericksburg City Council provides 44% of the budget, while the state provides 32% and the federal government provides 14%.
Since 2020, 9% of the division’s budget has come from federal pandemic relief funds. That funding came in three rounds and represented a massive one-time influx of funds that will not be replenished when the last round expires on Sep. 30, 2024.
Brody called this a “fiscal cliff.”
The loss of this funding comes at the same time as the division’s special needs populations - special education and English language learners - are exploding, even as overall enrollment is not growing.
“The conversation is going to become - we need this, so what are we going to give up to get it?” Brody said, adding, “I’m hoping that wasn’t too sad of a presentation!”
Though there are challenges ahead, deputy superintendent Matt Eberhardt said the division has a history of finding creative ways to fund its needs without asking for more local funding.
“We apply for every grant that’s out there,” he said.
FCPS secured $7.4 million in state grant funding for the construction of the new middle school and trimmed a total of $1.2 million from the cost of that project through other savings, he said.
The division also acquired federal and state grants to replace HVAC systems at two schools and to purchase 10 electric school buses.
“All together, that’s $21.3 million we did not ask the city for,” Eberhardt said, getting a round of applause.
Superintendent Marci Catlett said she takes comfort in knowing that the division used the influx of pandemic relief funds to make investments in staff positions and programs that support the students.
“What we feel good about is that we did what we needed to do when we had the opportunity to do it,” she said. “The focus and the main thing is always improving student achievement and doing what’s best for children. We keep that as our compass.”
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