Amid money crunch, school board cuts $1.2 mil. in new positions from budget

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools is slowing the expansion of district-wide staff in response to expected revenue losses because of the pandemic. To this end, the Harrisonburg School Board, during its Tuesday work session, tentatively approved a first draft of budget revisions that takes out planned positions.

“We’ve had to propose some significant cuts,” Superintendent Michael Richards said. “This is probably not where the cuts end, unfortunately … we’ll continue to monitor what the city is giving us, and monitor any changes that may come from the state.”

The school board had approved a budget for Fiscal Year 2021 that included 37.75 full-time equivalent personnel additions. The staff’s recommendations presented Tuesday drop that number to the equivalent of 20 full-time positions, which cuts $1.2 million in salaries and benefits from the budget. 

Tracy Shaver, executive director of finance, said they were focused on keeping the additions “that directly affected classes and class sizes” and state standards of quality requirements.

Richards said the reductions don’t affect any current employees because the positions are all new and no one had been hired yet. 

“We’re not reducing or removing any people,” he said.

The big driver behind the cuts at Tuesday’s work session was the reduction in state funding. 

Shaver said as a result of the General Assembly’s budget changes on April 22, Harrisonburg will receive about $3.1 million less from the state than initially anticipated for Fiscal Year 2021.

Some of that loss will be made up by the more than $1.2 million in federal revenue coming to the school district from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, meaning the school still has to cut at least $1.8 million from the budget. That also doesn’t take into account an expected revenue shortfall from the city. Shaver said those numbers would be available next month at the earliest. 

Shaver said CARES Act funds “will be used to supplant local and state revenues that we would use in other areas. Specifically we’re looking at supplanting local and state revenues for technology purchases, for instructional purchases, and professional development for the school division.”

Meanwhile, the district is also planning to withhold until January a proposed 3% salary increase for all staff, which would have gone into effect in July – assuming the district can still afford it at that time. If so, Richards said, the district would retroactively pay out the full fiscal year’s raise over the first six months of 2021. If not, then leaders might consider reducing the salary increase or changing it to a one-time bonus. 

However, school nutrition assistants, currently the lowest-paid positions in the district, will still receive a 7.5% salary increase slated for them, and cafeteria managers will receive a 3% raise. The school nutrition budget is separate from the district’s operating budget and “will support these increases,” Shaver said.

Richards said their pay is an issue of equity.

“I want our school nutrition folks to know we’re looking out for them,” he said.

Also in the meeting:

  • Richards announced that the “return to schools task force,” made up of 22 staff members from across the division and school board member Deb Fitzgerald, met last Thursday for an organizational meeting and to begin researching guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies for reopening schools under a variety of scenarios.
  • The school board recognized Sandy Thorpe, director of special programs, who has been with the district for 18 years and recently accepted a position with the Augusta County Public Schools.

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