By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press
WAYNESBORO — Two years ago, Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Cassell mentioned the possibility of the school system having to cut positions to balance the budget for the first time since The Great Recession.
A year ago, the school system began to weather and brace for the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as it would affect local funding.
At the Waynesboro School Board’s regular meeting Tuesday evening, held in the Louis Spilman Auditorium in Waynesboro High School with masks worn and social distancing practiced, Cassell and others spoke of increased funding for the school system in the 2021-2022 budget.
According to Cassell, the school system expects projected revenue to exceed the current year’s $1.5 million.
“That’s the good news,” said Cassell. “That we’re not going backward. And I’m not sure any of us would have anticipated a few months ago that state and local revenue would be as stable as it’s been, and it’s actually been increased during the pandemic.”
In the 2020-2021 budget, Cassell said the school system budgeted for an enrollment of 2,850 students. The school system will budget for 2,800 in 2021-2022.
“The enrollment has changed a little bit month to month,” Cassell said.
In Gov. Ralph Northam’s state budget announced Dec. 16, Cassell said Waynesboro Schools will receive $228,000 more than last year.
However, an error in the state’s calculating will end up giving Waynesboro Schools another $130,000, Cassell said.
If revenue continues as projected for the next academic year, which Cassell is optimistic about because state school officials have expressed optimism, state funding for the River City’s schools will increase from last academic year.
Local funding is projected at $1,365,000.
In other good news, the school system just received word that the River City’s schools will receive $3,250,000 in CARES Act funding in 2021-2022.
CARES Act funding limits how it can be spent. For example, the funding cannot be spent on personnel unless the school system can tie the spending to pandemic response.
Waynesboro Schools Executive Director of Finance Vonda Hutchinson reported that the school system’s surplus funds, called fund balance, for 2020-2021 is $1.6 million. The pandemic enabled the school system to save money in various areas.
Prior to Tuesday’s regular meeting, a public hearing was held for the budget. Waynesboro Education Association President Rosemary Wagoner spoke.
“Of course, our main goal for this budget season is to improve compensation for employees,” she said.
She added that the school board expressed the same goal in previous meetings.
However, Waynesboro Schools “has a lot of work to do to become competitive” with other school systems when it comes to teacher salaries.
“We want people to want to come to Waynesboro, but, in order to do that, we need to do a major boost to keep from losing any more ground, and throughout the state,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner said that the association recommends an average 6 percent increase for teacher salaries in the 2021-2022 budget. Salaries were frozen in 2020-2021.
The association also would like to see teacher paid time off change from days taken to hours.
Dr. Ryan Barber, Waynesboro Schools Executive Director of Student Services, spoke during the public hearing on behalf of the school system’s Special Education Advisory Committee.
“We noticed when we invited our students with disabilities into our schools a little bit earlier than other groups of kids, they really thrived,” Barber said, “and they got a lot of one-on-one attention, and were able to orient to the school setting in a much more efficient way, and they were much more successful.”
The SEAC recommends the school board provide additional programming to give students with disabilities more of the same opportunities.
Barber said the school board has shown support of the committee on social media and with the creation of the STEP Learning Lab near the high school.
“[The school board has] always been very supportive — of budget requests that we have,” Barber added.
Barber said that some students with disabilities have thrived in the virtual learning environment.
“We also recognize the great work that our teachers have been doing,” he said.
The SEAC, according to Barber, recommends the school board provide professional development for physical education teachers in the 2021-2022 budget so that physical education can be adapted for students with special needs.
“The SEAC was complimentary of how the school division has handled the pandemic during a difficult time,” Barber said.