• 36°

Surry starts school budget talks

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an enrollment decline for Surry County Public Schools.

Demographic changes also mean the school and county officials may want to consider building a single new consolidated school building to house all the county’s K-12 students versus attempting to renovate three aging buildings, Superintendent Serbrenia Sims said during a virtual joint budget planning work session with the school board and county supervisors on Feb. 4.

Most recently, Sims said 19 students were withdrawn from the division and put in a home school program. The superintendent said parents told school officials they made that decision due to the COVID-19 pandemic because “they would prefer until the pandemic subsides to keep their students at home as opposed to engaging in the school division.”

In 2016, the division had 826 students. In the 2019-2020 school year, 731 students were enrolled, and for the current academic year ending this coming June, 679 students were enrolled as of this month.

Sims said it is difficult for small communities to expand student enrollment, as the trend is that families typically tend to move from rural to suburban or urban areas. “This trend is true across Virginia as well as the United States,” Sims said.

Also, people who are on the cusp of adulthood and entering the workforce are likely to be more comfortable or eager to leave the community where they grew up to pursue education or employment outside the region. They often don’t return to their rural communities.

In addition, she added, family life has changed in recent decades. “People are not having large families anymore,” Sims said. “I grew up in a family of eight siblings and myself. You don’t see that anymore. People might have two, three kids. Four is a lot at this point.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the division developed and implemented a virtual curriculum in less than five months. School leaders recently decided to continue with virtual-only learning. “We were forced to do this because of COVID-19, but certainly the expertise of our teaching staff as well as all of our support personnel made this a possibility for us,” Sims said.

With those statistics in mind, Sims suggested the conversation about building a consolidated K-12 school with wings for elementary, middle and high school students, ought to at least be on the table in the next five years.

Sims said it might cost about $125 million for a consolidated K-12 school building, but there would be some ongoing savings through shared services and infrastructure, like operating one cafeteria versus three. Luther Porter Jackson Middle School is 25 years old, Surry Elementary’s building is 37 years old and the high school building is 46 years old. Across the U.S., public school buildings are 42 years old on average, Sims said, citing information from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Surry’s 2021 fiscal year budget for the school division is $16.4 million.

In the current budget year, Sims said the division saved about $525,000 by leaving vacant positions unfilled. For the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year, budget considerations will include the possibility of reduced state funding due to declining enrollment and efforts to deliver a 5% salary increase for all staff, a move that would cost an estimated $550,000. The division also wishes to expand its technical education curriculum with course offerings in subjects such as agriculture, nursing and welding.

Sims urged the county and school board to make salaries an important part of the upcoming budgeting process in response to cost of living increases and to keep the division’s salary on par with school systems in the region and the state. Surry school employees did not receive a raise last year.

The meeting earlier this month was informational only. However, budget decisions will start to take shape in coming weeks. A proposed school budget will be submitted to the county’s board of supervisors on March 18, a public hearing on the county’s overall proposed budget is set for May 6, and the county plans to finalize its 2021-2022 fiscal year budget on May 13.

Budget season is often a difficult process for school boards and local governments. But Carol Swindell, Surry County’s interim finance director, called attention to a positive statistic during the work session — Surry is ranked as one of the least fiscally stressed jurisdictions in Virginia, according to the statewide Commission on Local Government.

In 2017 and 2018, Surry ranked 124 out of Virginia’s 133 localities for fiscal stress, which the commission classifies as low fiscal stress. Isle of Wight County was ranked 84, which is below average. Emporia was named the most fiscally stressed city, and Falls Church was least stressed. The ranking measures revenue capacity, revenue effort and median household income.

Sims opened the meeting by sharing some student academic achievement highlights.

First is that all of Surry’s public schools are fully accredited. Surry High’s 2020 graduating class completed 353 Dual Enrollment college hours, and the class was awarded more than $3 million in scholarship offers. Luther Porter Jackson Middle also received a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant worth $184,500. The money supports after-school academic tutoring and enrichment programs.

Dr. Marion Wilkins, Surry’s School Board chairwoman, expressed appreciation and optimism for the budget season as everyone continues to grapple with how the ongoing pandemic has changed work, school and life for everyone.

“Even though COVID-19 has had an impact on our schools, especially in how we operate, our teachers are still teaching and our students are still performing well academically and earning awards,” Wilkins said. To keep that positive momentum, “we continue to need the board of supervisors’ financial support and personal support,” Wilkins continued. “We are all in this together.”