Facing a roughly $641,000 shortfall from a reduction in state funding from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus, the Amherst County School Board unanimously approved a revised fiscal year 2021 budget at its May 14 meeting.
The board covered the majority of the deficit, or just more than $517,000, by splitting a planned 3% pay raise for all division employees to 1.5% and nixing two career teaching positions, which saved close to $112,000.
Superintendent Rob Arnold said the division’s biggest concern in the wake of COVID-19 is loss of revenue, particularly state sales tax and supplemental lottery money funding sources. He said the division is budgeting very conservatively in projecting a 50% loss in sales tax money and he has asked the Amherst County Board of Supervisors to allow unspent money at the close of the fiscal year, typically reserved for capital spending under normal circumstances, to go back into the division’s operational budget to absorb the economic blows from the pandemic.
“We believe we’re going to need all the money we can for next year because we may have a whole year of lagging sales tax and lottery funds,” Arnold told board members.
Because of school closures that began March 13, the school system has realized some savings, particularly in areas of fuel costs and electricity. “We’ve cut back in spending,” Arnold said.
After all financial obligations are met, the division anticipates unspent revenue of about $1.3 million. Factoring in state reductions, school officials believe a balance in the current budget of about $474,000 will remain that can carry forward into the new fiscal year and offset any potential losses, according to Arnold.
The division also has received $821,000 in federal aid money from the CARES Act, a measure Congress recently passed to help soften the economic losses from the virus, and Arnold said he would like to use that for a planned future project to improve broadband connectivity for the community.
“I personally don’t want to use that to backfill our budget,” Arnold said of the federal stimulus money.
Arnold noted the federal relief money lasts until 2022. “We’ll have plenty of time to put it toward any project,” he said, adding of overall resources: “We feel like we have enough here that will cover the shortfall we may see next year.”
Arnold said the pandemic has shined a light on the value of Amherst educators, who are bridging widespread learning gaps while students are at home. He and board members noted the importance of preserving the pay raise, and Arnold said teachers went without them during most of the 10 years following the Great Recession of 2007 through 2009.
“Public education took a beating,” Arnold said. “I don’t want that to happen if it doesn’t have to happen.”
Some board members said they hope if money is available within the next year, they can make up for the other 1.5% of the raise in the form of a potential bonus, a measure Arnold described as “certainly doable.”
Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon described the $50.2 million budget that takes effect July 1 as a “very responsible revision.”
“We are going to pay our bills and have money at the end,” Liggon said. “And that’s what everybody wants to hear.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.