Northampton Passes FY 2023 Budget

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By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton County Board of Supervisors passed its fiscal year 2023 budget June 28, just three days before the new budget cycle was set to begin July 1.

Due to the delay in the Virginia General Assembly passing the two-year state budget, which was signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin June 21, the Northampton school board had not known how much state funding would be included in its budget, and Northampton supervisors had not known how much local funding would be needed to balance the school budget, causing both the county and school budget to be finalized at the last minute.

Northampton schools Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas reviewed the changes to the school budget that had been made since the state budget was passed.

Both the Accomack and Northampton school divisions have been seeking the Cost of Competing Adjustment or COCA funding, which is state funding that historically has been given to Virginia school divisions near Washington, D.C., to help those school divisions compete in the labor market by offering higher teacher salaries.

Accomack and Northampton schools have struggled to recruit teachers when competing with nearby counties in Maryland and cities across the Chesapeake Bay, like Virginia Beach.

Last year, Accomack and Northampton received what was essentially one-time COCA funding of $2 million, of which Northampton’s share was approximately $400,000 based on its smaller number of students.

Permanent COCA funding of about $3.5 million was proposed for this year, but the General Assembly opted instead for another round of one-time funding, of which Northampton’s share is more than $300,000.

Thomas said the General Assembly stabilized funding for at-risk students over the two-year state budget cycle, meaning Northampton schools will receive about the same amount of at-risk funding in each of the next two years. Even though the updated school budget shows a loss of nearly $258,000 in at-risk funding for FY 2023, the school division will still get more at-risk funding than it received previously, she explained.

(At-risk students are those who are more likely to fail academically, typically due to factors such as poverty.)

The General Assembly also reduced the amount of school construction funding it had originally planned to give each school division, which was $1 million plus additional funding based on average daily membership.

The $1 million for each school division was left intact, and since Northampton’s average daily membership of 1,300 students is already low compared to many school divisions, it did not lose much in the funding cut.

“It’s a $1.2 million gift. … I’ll take it,” said Supervisor John Coker.

Thomas confirmed that the $1.2 million will be applied to the cost of improvements to Northampton’s middle and high school.

She later expressed anticipation that the new-and-improved middle and high school will prompt increased enrollment.

Coker noted that, according the to the latest U.S. Census, population decline in Northampton County had appeared to level off.

“Look at all the houses that are being built here in this county,” he added. “I’m guessing a lot of them are going to be younger families and a lot of them are going to have kids.” He speculated that school enrollment may increase within the next five years.

The state budget also included $1,000 bonuses for school employees in Standards of Quality or SOQ positions, which are teaching and support staff positions required by the state.

The bonuses will be 100% covered by American Rescue Plan funding, with no local funding match required.

However, the school division plans to give bonuses to all employees, not just those in SOQ positions, which will cost more than $200,000 in local funding.

In spite of the state budget cuts, all the changes made to the school budget resulted in a total revenue increase for Northampton schools of almost $17,000.

Moreover, the school division shrank its budget by reducing the number of new positions it added to benefit at-risk students.

“We’re not leaving any money on the table, we’re just reducing it from where it was in the original budget down to where the state will fund it,” Coker clarified. 

Northampton schools saved nearly $169,000 by reducing the budgeted number of instructional assistants in grades 3 to 8 from one per grade to one for every two grades.

Superintendent Eddie Lawrence explained the new instructional assistants will be placed in the lower grades to help address learning gaps created during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For … the previous two years, we’ve had interrupted learning, so we had kids who did not go to pre-K, who should have been in pre-K. We had kids who didn’t go to kindergarten, who should have been in kindergarten.

“So we’re putting these aides in those lower grades, where the greatest needs are. … If we don’t look at this strategically, we’re going to be 10 years getting past COVID,” Lawrence said.

Nearly $136,000 was saved by removing additional social workers from the budget, and about $173,000 was saved by removing additional behavior specialists.

The school division also saved $80,000 by removing a new student support coordinator and about $52,000 by budgeting for one student success coach instead of two.

When permanent COCA funding was anticipated, Northampton schools had planned to give teachers a pay increase of 4% plus a step raise and other employees a 6% pay increase and a step raise.

When the school division learned it will not receive permanent COCA funding this year, the change was made to give pay increases of 4% plus step raises “across the board,” to all employees under contracts and work agreements, Thomas said.

The Northampton school division reduced its planned FY 2023 expenditures by nearly $822,000, leaving it with a budget deficit of about $548,000 that it asked the county to cover.

The original school budget for FY 2023 had included a deficit approaching $1.4 million.

Coker said he was not comfortable giving the school board more than $200,000 to apply to employee bonuses because the school board had not yet decided how to calculate the amount of each bonus.

Lawrence agreed to update supervisors when the school board reached a decision on how to allocate the bonuses.

The Northampton County Public Schools operating budget for FY 2023 totals approximately $24 million, a 2.7% increase from FY 2022.

Northampton County is contributing nearly $9.6 million in local funding for the school division’s operating budget and bus replacements.

Northampton County Finance Director John Chandler reviewed the county’s FY 2023 budget, including a discussion on tax rates.

To adjust for rising property values, a proposal had been made to reduce Northampton’s real estate tax rate from 83.5 cents to 78.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, a decrease of five cents per $100 of assessed value.

Coker suggested reducing the real estate tax rate another three cents since additional school funds were not yet needed. Chandler countered with a suggestion to reduce the real estate tax rate 2.5 cents, to 76 cents per $100 of assessed value. Coker agreed.

Northampton’s personal property tax rate also will be reduced from 3.9 cents to 3.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Coker made a motion to adopt the appropriations resolution for Northampton’s estimated FY 2023 revenues; Supervisor Dixon Leatherbury seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.

Northampton County’s FY 2023 budget includes a general fund of $45 million, nearly half of which is supported by general property tax revenue of nearly $22 million.

In addition to the general fund, the budget includes other funds with their approximate totals for FY 2023, such as: social services, $2.7 million; American Rescue Plan funding, $1.1 million; harbor improvement, $160,000; Eastern Shore Regional Jail, $4.8 million; capital reserves, $1.8 million; general debt service, $2.5 million; school debt service, $2.8 million; public utilities, $374,000; economic development authority, $22,000; and tourism capital funding, $200,000.

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