Salem Schools could lose $2.2 million in state funds

SALEM – Salem City Schools could lose as much as $2.2 million in state funds – and the Salem School Board and superintendent aren’t sure where those cuts will have to be made up. Reducing salaries and benefits is likely, Salem School Superintendent Dr. Alan Seibert said, “now that the state has reneged on its responsibilities.”

Seibert gave out the state figures to Salem City Council and the Salem School Board when they met March 3 to discuss upcoming finances and programs. The following day he issued a press release reacting to the proposed state budget cuts. He said the cuts are threatening to set back K-12 public education four years, to levels not seen since 2006. Salem Schools would likely need to make “especially painful cuts,” Seibert said.

The superintendent pledged every effort would be made not to lay off teachers and other personnel, and instead, to close the anticipated budget gap through natural attrition – people retiring or leaving the school system for other reasons, and their positions not being filled.

About 80 percent of Salem School’s annual budget is made up of salaries and benefits for its employees, like other school divisions in Virginia. Much of the remaining 20 percent is for fixed costs such as utilities, maintenance and debt service.

“A reduction of this magnitude cannot be achieved without a negative impact on children,” said Seibert. “My only solace is that we have terrific people who will do everything they possibly can to help minimize the impact.”

The General Assembly’s Conference Committee dealing with the separate House of Delegates and Senate versions of the state budget are working to reconcile differences between the respective proposals.

Under what the Senate is proposing, Salem’s state aid would be reduced by 8.7 percent, which would require cuts of $1.7 million. The House’s version proposes cuts of more than 11 percent, reducing state money coming to Salem Schools by $2.2 million.

Seibert explained Salem school officials had been planning for a range of possibilities, once the amount of state aid was known, “And we will now meet the challenge.”

Salem already runs a bare-bones system, Seibert said, by providing a high-qulity education for almost $1,100 less per pupil than the average for the state’s school systems.

Salem Schools Central Office administrative costs account for less than 3.5 percent of the total school division budget, “So when you already are lean, the cuts start with meat and bone,” added Seibert.

He and other school superintendents are particularly opposed to the House Budget Bill that makes proposed cuts permanent by changing the funding formula for state basic aid to education. The Senate Bill recommends a two-year reduction to give the state’s economy a chance to recover.

“This is a problem at the state level and children should not be expected to bear the burden,” Seibert said the press release.

Starting in the fall, Seibert met with teachers and staff at each of Salem’s six schools, answering questions and asking for ideas from employees about their priorities on reductions in salaries and benefits.

According to those results, 95 percent of the 362 school employees who completed the survey said they would rather see their own pay cut in order to help keep fellow school employees from being laid off.

School personnel who responded also said they would be willing to pay part of their health insurance, instead of Salem Schools paying it.