By Haley Thomas, contributor
The first draft of the next year’s city school budget calls for a 7.47% increase, mostly to cover effects of inflation and other rising costs, as well as to prepare for the opening of Rocktown High School in fall 2024.
Superintendent Michael Richards proposed a 2023-24 budget of more than $114.5 million for Harrisonburg City Public Schools at Tuesday’s work session, which was the first official step in the process of the board sending the budget request to the city council later this spring.
Richards’ proposed budget requests $42.5 million from the city, which works out to a 13.42% increase from what the city is funding in the 2022-23 school year.
“It’s not a dramatic increase in terms of the proportion that the city provides as compared to the state,” Richards said, adding that state funding accounts for more than 54% of the total budget, while more than 8% comes from federal funding. City tax funds cover the remaining 37%.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that we have not had big asks in the last four years,” Richards said, adding that one year, the district requested no funding increases. “We’ve been very frugal in the years preceding Rocktown’s opening, knowing that there would be boosts [in expenses].”
Richards’ proposed budget includes the addition of 22.5 full time positions, five of which will be filled in preparation for the opening of Rocktown High School. One of these positions includes a planning principal who will come on board later this year to lay the groundwork for Rocktown’s opening in fall 2024.
“Some school divisions will put a lot of positions in that are more what of what you might call ‘wants,’” Richards said of the new positions. “This budget really includes only needs.”
Some other new positions include several special education teachers and permanent substitutes, which teachers have requested to help reduce stress and, thus, boost morale. The addition of these positions and others contracts a total of $1.57 million in salaries and benefits.
Richards said another aspect of the requested increase stems from requests from the city itself, particularly with transportation and healthcare.
“There’s inflationary impacts to both of those,” said Chief of Finance Tracy Shaver. “Healthcare’s gone up significantly, primarily because of inflation, and transportation costs — the costs of fuel, the cost to attract and retain bus drivers, the cost of maintenance expenses.”
Richards said the cost of health insurance, for example, has increased 12% due to a combination of inflation and the pandemic, compared to last year’s 3% cost increase.
More than 74% of the proposed budget will go directly toward student instruction, which Richards said was the “clear focus.”
Richards also proposed the 2023-24 school nutrition budget, which is separate from the operational budget. The nutrition budget is “self-supporting,” Richards said, funded mostly through federal dollars. The proposed nutrition budget is just under $6 million, a $1.02 million increase from last year’s budget to cover an increase in students participating in the meal program, as well as an 8-10% increase in food-related costs, Richards said.
The board held a public hearing after the budget proposals, but only two attendees participated, asking clarifying questions. The board will hold another public hearing regarding the proposed budget at the April 4 meeting.
After a drumroll by the board and meeting attendees, Richards announced the official mascot for Rocktown High School: the Rocktown Raptors.
“It was a collective effort,” Richards said. Students chose the mascot after participating in surveys and interacting with Richards’ advisory council, made up of students at Harrisonburg High School.
About 49% of students voted for the small, sharp-toothed dinosaur. The board cheered, mimicking claws and roars.
Richards said he plans to work with students to design the mascot’s image, but he’s “sure they’ll impress us with what they come up with.”
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