, 2014

School funding dominates
Lancaster budget hearing

by Audrey Thomasson

Budget adoption expected tonight

Lancaster supervisors will vote tonight, June 27, on a proposed 2013-14 county budget of $31,726, 263, including estimated expenditures of $27,961,543.

The budget could include a reallocation of school funding by category.

As proposed, the schools will receive an operating budget of $14,834,118, plus $585,000 for food service for a total of $15,419,118.

By category, school allocations would total $11,040,000 for instruction, $500,000 for technology, $668,028 for administration/health, $1,100,000 for transportation, $1,438,695 for operations/maintenance and $87,395 for debt service.

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LANCASTER—In what some of his critics are calling “Chicago-style politics,” school superintendent Dr. Daniel Lukich fired back at county supervisors for cutting the 2013-14 school budget by rallying school maintenance employees with threats of lay-offs, loss of benefits and 45-day contracts.

In a letter to employees and in a paid newspaper advertisement, Lukich said the county’s change to category spending restricted “use and transfer of budgeted funds” and the funding cut, specifically $455,000 to maintenance, “puts at risk the safety and security of 1,300 students when the new school year begins.” Also, Lukich wrote employees that the county’s “tax rate increase should recapture most if not all the revenue lost by the county from previous years.”

The superintendent was responding to the June 6 vote by county supervisors cutting the school budget request of $15,240,000 by some $500,000, primarily in operations and maintenance. In addition, supervisors issued a categorized budget that would not allow the school district to shift money between categories, such as spending money allocated to instruction for administration, to purchase buses or for maintenance costs.

Public hearing

Last week, about two dozen school employees attended the county’s public hearing on the county budget. Half were school maintenance workers who said they are worried about their jobs. Lukich did not attend the hearing.

“We will possibly lose our jobs,” said Larry Cox, a maintenance worker. “Why, if you have the money, why? Last night I got a contract for only 45 days. So in August, we don’t know if we have a job.”

“We’re here for the kids” and to keep the schools clean, said another maintenance employee, William Hubbard Jr. “And then we hear we could be laid off for something we didn’t do. I feel like I’m caught in the middle. We need a solid answer. We’re the ones who will suffer.”

Linda Coy said she is a 25-year resident and employee of the school system. She called the cuts “capricious” and said she was distressed over the lack of cooperation between the county and school board.

Monty Jackson, who identified himself as a county resident retired from state and federal government work, suggested hiring an independent contractor to solve budget disagreements and cutting employees at the top end of the salary scale rather than those at the bottom.

“Money is money. But...you can’t tear lives apart,” Jackson said.

C.D. Hathaway said he agreed with the idea of an independent financial person checking the books to find out why the school claims there will be $150,000 left over in the current budget and why the county claims there will be up to $940,000 in unspent funds.

He defended the county’s financial advisor, Jack Larson. “Because of what he’s doing, he’s getting lynched,” said Hathaway.

Shaking his head in dismay, District 2 resident Charlie Costello said the purpose of the public hearing was to discuss the entire budget and not to focus just on the schools.

“No one (on the board of supervisors) picked 14 people to cut their jobs,” he said.

The equalized tax rate adjustment will not raise taxes, he said. Although some individual real estate property taxes will go up a little, many more will go down, explained Costello.

“If (the schools) have problems with the categories...the school board should come back to supervisors in public session and get it resolved...Fourteen people in maintenance are being used as pawns. It is wrong. It is a tactic that will backfire and shouldn’t be used. I’ll wager no one will lose their job over this,” Costello said. “It takes people of good will to get it done.”

Larson denied he’d been paid by the county as Lukich claimed in his advertisement. “Anything I’ve done...has been as a concerned citizen,” he said.

Larson, who recently retired as assistant county administrator in charge of managing the county’s budgeting process, said giving the school district “lump sum” spending the last few years wasn’t working. He said last year Lukich claimed teachers were underpaid and the budget didn’t allow him to hire a music teacher, “Yet there was unspent money in instruction.”

Larson said the school budget regularly had substantial unspent funds each year and they scrambled to spend in the final weeks when school was no longer in session.

“In all my years in government, I’ve never seen this done,” he said.

In addition, he noted school finance director Sue Salg’s answer to questions about the budget many times was “I don’t know.” When she finally offered an explanation, her answers were “inadequate,” said Larson.

“Under the code of Virginia, schools are to be efficient and effective. These schools have been inefficient for a long time and I’ve got reports to back it up. When you see this evidence of end-of-year spending, it isn’t right,” he said.

Larson said he did a “quick and dirty” recommendation on category spending, based on the information he could gather at that time and that he put money in the areas of highest priority. He said the operations and maintenance budget was cut based on estimates of unspent funds, and he expressed concerns about large amounts spent on substitute janitorial services. “They are spending an outrageous sum of money for janitors, some $300,000. I’ve asked them to justify that number. The county contribution (to the school budget) keeps going up and up and up.”

Larson suggested the school’s director of operations “...put his thinking cap on and come up with a number that increases efficiency. $14,732,395 is a good number. They can do it, not by dumping money at the end of the year...but by deciding what is nice to have and what is a must have.”

Larson said hiring an independent paid consultant isn’t the answer. “They need to work from the spirit of cooperation and not through an advertisment” paid with county taxpayer funds, he said.

School director of instruction John Tupponce said Lukich was out on personal business.

“When we think about the work we do, we think about the kids. Please consider the kids. Please be reasonable and reconsider the ramifications of how we look at the categories,” said Tupponce.

Supervisors respond

Supervisors unanimously agreed there was no intent to get rid of any employees.

“Let me make clear,” said District 4 supervisor William Lee, “It was no one’s intention (among supervisors)...that anyone should lose their job.”

“The school board runs the schools, not this board,” said District 3 supervisor Jason Bellows.

District 5 supervisor Wally Beauchamp agreed. “Keep one factor in mind—a reasonable, cost-effective school system. I haven’t seen that in a number of years. Fifteen administrators make almost $1.5 million. I have no problem with sitting down with the school board. It’s long overdue.”

Bellows proposed adjustments in allocations of the school budget by category, based on the latest available spending figures (See box). As proposed, some $338,000 would be shifted back to the maintenance department.

District 1 supervisor and board chairman Butch Jenkins said supervisors will vote on the final budget at their monthly meeting at 7 p.m. June 27.

“This is all propaganda in the same way (Lukich) used the music teacher position,” Bellows said after the meeting. “He continues to play these political games and pit people against people. Things will not change until things change or people change.”

Bellows said he prepared the adjustments prior to last week’s public hearing. “I thought we needed to spare the operations budget.”

However, he was critical of school officials on the way the budget was presented.

“There is no transparency in the school budget,” Bellows said. “There should be joint meetings between the board of supervisors and school board in preparing the budget, as has been done in past years...Dan Lukich chose to take another path. He tried to pit the public against the board of supervisors. He puts gas on the fire.”

School board members comment

Some school board members expressed dismay about Lukich’s tactics. District 4 member Patrick McCranie said he was not happy with the superintendent’s actions.

District 1 member Bob Smart said Lukich misled the public by saying he was acting on behalf of the school board when he sent the letter to the maintenance department and placed the newspaper ad. He and several board members said Lukich did not confer with them.

“Last year he put the fear in the teachers when he threatened furloughs,” said Smart. “This year he used the maintenance staff. All he needed to do was talk with supervisors.”

Smart said many people believe Lukich engages in “Chicago-style politics,” referring to the superintendent’s prior job in the Chicago area.

District 5 member and school board chairman Alex Fleet and District 3 member Don McCann confirmed they were not contacted by the superintendent.

“I haven’t seen any of it,” said Fleet. “I think it’s always best...to have it confirmed with the school board. We’ll be discussing the budget changes in a special session July 8,” said Fleet. “I’m sorry this is happening to everyone.”

McCann said he did not object to Lukich’s comments. “The school board did support the budget. Those are all facts. I don’t have a problem with that.”

District 2 member Ella Davis declined to comment.

Dr. Lukich was attending a conference out of town and could not be reached for comment.

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