Every penny counts and for Superintendent of Schools Terrence Beam, there are fewer and fewer pennies to do more and more things.
In the past few years, there has been a decline in financial assistance to Pocahontas County Schools, yet there has been no decline in expenses – only increases.
The Secure Rural Schools funding – also known as the forestry money – has decreased over the years, leading to a large gap in the school budget.
“The amount of money at one time that we received was over $700,000 and that is conservative,” Beam said. “It might have been a little more than that, but I don’t know the exact figures. I do know that now the figures are in the $300,000 range. When you talk about losing $400,000 a year out of that budget, that’s a lot of money.”
On top of the SRS funding, Pocahontas County Schools recently learned it was shorted roughly $1.3 million in a seven year period from the West Virginia Department of Education state aid formula.
An audit of the WVDE revealed that 36 counties were underfunded. Some counties were underfunded more than Pocahontas, others less, but Pocahontas was shorted the most money per student – nearly $1,100 per student for seven years.
With that in mind, the Pocahontas County Board of Education chose to seek legal action against the WVDE. Joining Pocahontas in the fight were Kanawha, Greenbrier and Marion counties.
Because of the shortage, Pocahontas County Schools is one of 12 school systems on the “State watch list,” meaning the financial statements and budget are monitored by the WVDE in order to ensure the schools do not go in the red.
“It’s not that we’ve spent more money in the last five or six years,” Beam said. “It’s just that we’ve gotten less money to spend. We’ve not cut back on personnel and our income has stayed the same or gone down, so that was the reason the board decided that they thought we needed to pursue [the lawsuit]. Some counties may have the luxury of having enough money and saying ‘it was a mistake, we’re not going to mess with this,’ but we don’t have that luxury. We need to watch every dime that we possibly can.”
In an effort to fully understand the county’s financial standing, Beam said he reached out to WVDE Executive Director of the Office of School Finance Amy Willard. He asked Willard how the county looked on the watch list, and what her suggestion would be to help improve the county’s budget.
Willard emailed information to Beam concerning the past four years, fiscally. She said the downward trend of the budget is concerning, especially since the budget dropped 50 percent from 2013 to 2016. Beam said the drop was the loss in SRS funding.
Willard added that the board of education was paying too many salaries out of the general fund and suggested the board reduce personnel in the upcoming personnel season – Reduction in Force (RIF) season.
Beam explained that the board is provided a certain amount of funding by the state to pay salaries of professional and service personnel based on the number of students enrolled. The county is currently paid for 1,400 although it has only 1,050 students enrolled.
At this time, the school system is over the formula with one professional and 11 service personnel. The large number of service personnel is due to the number of bus drivers needed in Pocahontas County.
“Those total twelve positions – they’re saying that we are living above our means with service personnel in particular,” Beam said. “Now, with the vastness of our county, the bus driver situation – if you have twenty bus drivers and you have 1,050 kids, you’re talking fifty-one kids to a bus approximately. In a perfect world, if you could just divide them up and do that, it would be great, but they don’t live close like that. So, we’re going to have buses that have eighty in them, and we’re going to have buses that have thirty in them.”
Beam said he asked several years ago if there was a way to reduce the number of bus runs and the simple answer was “no.” The board office has tried to combine two bus runs before and it has not worked.
Also included in service personnel are cooks, custodians, secretaries and aides. Beam said it is difficult to look at these positions and find 11 that the schools could live without.
“Cooks – we have schools who say they need more cooks,” he said. “Custodians – we’ve got five buildings. It’s not just about cleaning buildings. It’s about mowing grass. Do you make cuts there? Do you make cuts in aides? We have a lot of special needs students that, aides are not hired for one child, but they end up working with one or two children at the most because the needs are so severe.
“We have secretaries,” he continued. “We have secretaries here in this office. We have secretaries at each school. I never had a secretary the first twenty years I was principal. When I came here, and everybody had a secretary, I thought, ‘my gosh, I’m in heaven over here.’ If you make all these changes, dollar-wise, how much do you actually save?”
What makes Pocahontas County unique is also what makes it difficult to reduce personnel. The size of the county and the way residents are spread out in the county is the reason there are so many bus drivers and why some schools cannot be consolidated.
Unfortunately, the WVDE does not look at the county by square acreage and population. It looks at the number of students and bases all funding on that number.
“Here’s what’s key,” Beam said. “The state department looks at our numbers. They don’t look at situations as much as they look at numbers. They say, ‘you’re over your budget, you’ve got more people than you need.’ One thing Willard says in her email is that most counties spend eighty to eighty-five percent of their budget on personnel, where ours is ninety-five to ninety-eight percent.”
Beam looks at other counties that are on the watch list, as well as counties under a state takeover and worries about the future of Pocahontas County.
He recalls the situation in Boone County, where the WVDE told the board of education it needed to reduce personnel or else there would be a takeover.
“Boone County is a big county, affluent county,” Beam said. “Their teachers are the second highest paid, behind Putnam. They cut eighty positions last year and the state said, ‘you haven’t done near enough yet.’ They were still going to be seven million dollars short on their budget. They were going to run out of money in April. So the state stepped in and said, ‘fine, if you’re not going to do it, we’re going to do it for you.’
“The board agreed,” Beam continued. “They cut thirty, forty more positions and then there was a large exodus from Boone County. Now they’re thirty teachers short where they were one hundred, ten over.”
Beam doesn’t think Pocahontas County will be as drastic as Boone County, but he continues to worry what will happen if the budget continues to decline.
“Those are some of the decisions that we have to look at anytime we make a decision on adding personnel or cutting personnel, or whatever we do,” he said. “How is it going to affect all of our schools and our students and everything else. These are not easy decisions to make.”
Next week, Beam will give an update on the proposed school levy.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org