Budget Issues Facing Grayson County Public Schools
As the superintendent of Grayson County Public Schools, my focus is on providing the best possible education for our students. Grayson County has a great deal to offer its citizens. While the county has faced challenges with employment, demographics, and a corporate tax base, there are signs that these are starting to turn around with small and midsize industries locating in Grayson County. This has allowed employment opportunities to increase. It remains to be seen if the additional jobs will translate into working families relocating to Grayson County with their children. Most families which relocate for employment reasons will look at three factors: 1) the quality of the job position, 2) housing opportunities, and 3) the school system. If they choose to accept a job in Grayson County, but there is not adequate housing or the school system is not funded at the same level as surrounding divisions, they will most likely accept the job and commute to work from an adjacent city or county.
The board of supervisors and the county administrator have worked hard to bring employment opportunities to Grayson County, and that effort is starting to pay off with industries moving to or expanding in Grayson County. Unfortunately, it has not translated into more children attending Grayson County Public Schools. My purpose is not to cast blame upon any one reason or group, but to state the obvious in an attempt to solve an on-going problem. Over the past 10 years Grayson County has lost 500 students for an average of 50 students per year. Last year was an exception to the downward slide; we actually had one student more than the year before. However, this year the decline continued with a loss of 55 students to date. With a graduating class of approximately 145 students, and an anticipated kindergarten class of 100 for next year, this trend will likely continue.
This is not solely a Grayson County phenomenon. Out of 19 school divisions in Southwest Virginia, only two are experiencing modest growth: both are divisions in small cities which offer low and middle class housing. Also, in both cases the city councils fund their schools well above required local effort. Parents can also coordinate their work schedule with their child’s school schedule more easily when living in a town setting. As young families leave the rural setting and look for employment in cities and suburbs, this creates a challenge for all rural divisions. These two city schools are approximately the same size as Grayson County Public Schools, but have one high school and one middle school. One division has two elementary schools, while the other has one elementary school. One of these schools has a student population of 1610 compared to Grayson’s student population for next year of 1669. They have 209 employees, compared to our 339, and four schools compared to our eight.
To continue to kick the can down the road and not confront our real challenges only insures that Grayson County Public Schools will face similar budget cuts and hard choices in the foreseeable future. The rural nature of Grayson County presents unique challenges. The mountainous terrain and geographical configuration make it more difficult to operate in an efficient manner, both in terms of transportation and the ability to strategically locate facilities which provide a free and appropriate education for all Grayson County students. Costs include additional buses and drivers, more school buildings which require more principals, teachers and support staff, as well as increased expenses for vehicle fuel, utilities, and maintenance to keep our aging buildings in satisfactory condition.
If you combine these budget challenges with the growing need to provide modern 21st century learning programs so that our students have the same advantage as suburban school children, it puts a tremendous strain on the budget. The best dollars invested in education are put toward recruiting and retaining a quality teaching staff. When the division is forced to decide where to put our limited resources, something has to give. By not deciding in a timely manner, the quality of all programs, facilities, and staff decline.
For the past two budget cycles, I have made staff salaries and 21st century technology the top two priorities in improving student achievement, which must remain our primary focus. We are at a crossroads, and difficult decisions must be made. Due to loss of funding from federal and state governments, our division can no longer continue to operate with current staffing levels while at the same time offer salary increases in alignment with neighboring divisions. Private businesses know that when revenue goes down, jobs are impacted. The state of Virginia is providing the same level of funding to public education as it did in 2007. Even though our enrollment has decreased since 2007, costs for salaries, transportation, maintenance, food service, insurance and utilities have all gone up since that time.
These are some of the issues facing the school board and the community as we plan a budget for next year and the years to come. We are more likely to accomplish our goal and provide the best education possible for the students of Grayson County if we work together in a positive, constructive manner.
Kevin Chalfant, Superintendent
Grayson County Public Schools