Leaders of two local school systems discussed the budgeting process, the future of education and more Friday during a Middle Peninsula League of Voters (MidPenVOTE) "Lunch with the League" forum at First Presbyterian Church, Gloucester.
Ben Kiser, superintendent for Gloucester County Public Schools; Dave Holleran, superintendent for Mathews County Public Schools; Ann Burruss, chair of the Gloucester County School Board, and John Persinger, chair of the Mathews County School Board also took some time to answer questions from members of the audience at the forum.
Similar to a recent presentation at a MidPenVOTE forum with local county administrators, school leaders said they have faced one of the most challenging budgeting processes they have seen in their entire careers recently. However, each praised the devoted staffs of the Gloucester and Mathews school systems as they have endured more responsibility in recent months in trying to meet educational requirements with limited budgets.
Kiser said Gloucester has seen a $7 million shortfall in its budget over the past two years, from $59 million to $52 million. He anticipated another $2 million drop when he has to balance the following year’s budget.
Being a much smaller system, Holleran said Mathews school budget decreased from approximately $13 million to $12 million this fiscal year.
"We’re going to do the best we can with what we have," Kiser said.
Both systems have taken the time to listen to the community as well as employees to try to come up with ways to cut expenses to minimize the impact on the education and services provided to the students.
Mathews, Holleran said, has had to make some tough choices, such as requiring students to pay to participate in sporting activities, while Gloucester has had to trim its school day by 20 days.
"There has been some trepidation about a 160-day school year," Kiser said. "And I stand before you today, publicly to say that it will work. Many districts throughout Virginia are watching us … and most are watching us to see our success."
Burruss later addressed an issue that has proven to be controversial over past months regarding a Gloucester School Board decision to use leftover savings to provide its staff with $400 bonuses. "We wanted to show our employees how really grateful we were for everything they had done," she said.
When asked about the possible desire of some members of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors funding the schools by category rather than lump sum, Burruss said, "I interpret it personally as an attempt to control what the elected school board was elected to do."
She said the job of the school board is to manage the operation of public schools, including dealing with its funds. "We are the best to determine how those funds can be spent," Burruss said.