IWCS budget asks for $31.4 million from county for 2023-24

Published 6:42 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Superintendent Theo Cramer is asking Isle of Wight County to contribute $31.4 million to its school system next school year, a $4.6 million increase over what was given this year.

Cramer proposed an $81 million 2023-24 budget to the county’s School Board on Feb. 21. The budget is the first he’s developed for Isle of Wight County Schools since assuming leadership of the division in August.

The total amounts to a 3.7% increase over the $78.1 million budget Cramer’s predecessor, Jim Thornton, had developed last June for the current school year. In October, county supervisors voted to added $1 million to Isle of Wight County Schools’ budget after voting to return $812,507 they’d “set aside” in May, plus $234,272 in unspent funds from the previous school year. The current year’s budget now stands at $80.6 million, making Cramer’s proposed $81 million budget a 0.49% increase.

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Since ending the 2019-20 school year with a $65.4 million budget, IWCS has seen annual increases ranging from 3% to 8.9% over the past three years, largely from federal pandemic relief dollars and additional state funding to adjust for Isle of Wight’s growing population.

Come September, Isle of Wight County Schools is estimating a net loss of 60 students. That same month, the second of three rounds of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief or ESSER funds will expire.

Despite its net drop in enrollment, Isle of Wight will still be expected to comply with a provision of the statewide 2022-24 budget Virginia’s General Assembly adopted last year calling for two consecutive 5% raises for teachers, one to be paid this year and one in 2023-24.

Isle of Wight will receive state funding to cover the salary increase but only for the minimum number of positions required under the Virginia Department of Education’s standards of quality, or SOQs. As of October, Isle of Wight was required to employ 537.24 SOQ-funded positions, but had 739 total employees as of that month. Most school divisions in the state hire more teachers than the minimum required.

“To meet state mandates and the increased responsibilities placed on staff and schools, such will require increased level of funding from Isle of Wight County,” Cramer said.

Isle of Wight is projected to receive $42.2 million in state funding, down 3.2% from the $43.6 million budgeted at the start of the current school year. Earlier this month, Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle confirmed a state error had resulted in “overly generous” state funding estimates during last year’s budget cycle, and while all school divisions received what was allocated in the state’s 2022-24 Appropriations Act, Isle of Wight would receive $697,000 less than expected for the 2023-24 school year.

The Consumer Price Index had also risen 6.4% over the past year as of January amid a wave of inflation that’s gripped the country since the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, which Cramer noted is another factor driving up Isle of Wight County Schools’ estimated costs for the coming school year.

The additional $4.6 million ask of Isle of Wight County would amount to a 17% increase over the $26.8 million the county contributed to its school system at the start of the current school year. It would mark the first time since 2020 that the county’s annual contribution has increased by $1 million or more.

“People clearly desire to live in and work in Isle of Wight County, and they desire to send their children to our schools,” Cramer said. “If that trend is to continue … I implore you to invest in our schools.”

Cramer’s proposal would increase the division’s instructional funding by $1.3 million. Of this, $645,120 is allocated for the salaries of 20 first- and second-grade instructional assistants hired two years ago with the now-expiring ESSER funds to combat learning loss that resulted from schools shuttering in 2020.

School Board member Jason Maresh and Chairman John Collick were both skeptical of the proposed cost and asked to see data showing a benefit of continuing to fund the positions with local dollars.

“When we hired those 20 individuals they knew going into it that the ESSER money would run out and that they may not have a job when it was all said and done,” Maresh said.

Board members Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham, however, each urged support for continuing to employ the 20 assistants.

“The students may be playing catchup for years to come,” Cunningham said.


Funding for Girls on the Run program, K-9s at issue

Collick was also skeptical of Cramer’s proposed $40,000 contribution to Girls on the Run, a nonprofit program that, according to its website, enhances elementary and middle school girls’ social, emotional and physical skills through a curriculum that incorporates running.

“Why are we putting money out for a nonprofit organization when we don’t do it for any other nonprofit? … For me, using public money for that, I have a difficulty with that,” Collick said.

IWCS became the first school district nationwide in 2021 to have students participate in a Girls on the Run event from every public elementary and middle school within the division. Over 120 girls took part in the eight-week program that year, which culminated in a 5K race.

Cramer said some of the cost would pay stipends to IWCS teachers involved in the program. Maresh, however, joined Collick in his opposition.

Maresh stated he’d participated in the program with his daughter last year, but “would not support spending taxpayers’ money on doing this again.” In 2022, prior to taking office, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Smithfield Times calling the program “divisive” for its website’s contention that “Girls on the Run is a place where systemic disparities associated with societal advantages are acknowledged and addressed.”

Maresh also asked that Cramer modify the budget to include funding K-9s.

In 2022, Isle of Wight County-based American K-9 Interdiction LLC co-owner Paul Roushia briefed the School Board on how his company trains dogs to sniff out guns and drugs in neighboring school systems. Roushia had told the School Board American K-9 uses non-aggressive, primarily floppy-eared dogs specially trained to pick up the scent associated with firearms.

Maresh, at the Feb. 21 meeting, called the proposal an “affordable and quick option” to address “some issues we have with security.” Tynes urged the board to come up with a plan for how and when the dogs would be used prior to funding the proposal. Collick, citing security concerns, urged his fellow board members to suspend their discussion of the dogs’ capabilities until a future closed-session meeting.


What else is in the budget?

Cramer’s proposal would increase the division’s Transportation Department budget by $932,500, the majority of which would be tied to purchasing five new school buses. There are 69 total buses in the division’s fleet, 24 of which have reached or exceeded their lifespan, Cramer said. The total also includes an increase of $156,500 in the fuel line item to offset the fluctuating cost of gasoline, diesel fuel and propane.

The division’s Technology Department would see a $220,950 increase, more than half of which would go toward equipment repair and maintenance.The Human Resources department would see its allocation increase by $118,605, the majority of which is tied to the rollout of new record-keeping software.

The division’s Special Education Department would see a $387,086 increase, which would include funding for a new social worker, two new special education instructional assistants, one new special education teacher at Hardy, a part-time speech pathologist at Hardy and a diagnostician who would free up special education teachers from their testing duties.

The $1.3 million increase for instruction would include funding for two “dean of students” positions, one at Windsor High School and one at Smithfield High School, collectively budgeted at $146,000. These, according to Cramer, would focus on discipline to free up principals to focus on pandemic-related learning loss.

An instructional coach at Smithfield Middle School is budgeted at $80,000.

There’s an extra $105,436 budgeted for instructional supplies, such as art and science materials.

“I personally do not think it is our teachers’ responsibility to purchase such items with their hard-earned dollars,” Cramer said.

An additional physical education teacher and art teacher are budgeted for Smithfield High School at $73,000 apiece.

There’s $4,000 budgeted for an assistant athletic director stipend at Windsor High School.

There’s $30,000 budgeted for interpretation services for English-learner students and families.

There’s $131,000 budgeted for cafeteria monitors.

Five school security officers are budgeted at a collective $161,281. These would be non-law-enforcement employees of the school system who would report to each school’s principal. They would be in addition to the school resource officers in place at each school, who are sheriff’s deputies and report to Sheriff James Clarke rather than the school system.

Career and technical education programs would see a $338,000 increase in funding to add and staff a patient care technician program, add a CTE coordinator position, extend existing CTE teacher salaries to 11-month contracts and fund contract changes for the culinary arts program.

A budget work session is scheduled for March 2 at 6 p.m. at Westside Elementary. A public hearing on the budget is tentatively scheduled for March 7, also at 6 p.m. at Westside. A vote by the School Board on the budget is slated for March 9, same time and place, and the approved budget is due to the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors by March 31.

Editor’s note: This story is updated to reflect a roughly $1 million increase to Isle of Wight County Schools’ budget that occurred after the initial June budget adoption, and correct that the $146,000 is for both dean of students positions, not per position.