Increasing enrollment brings up budget questions


Ellie Plass

Goodbye, halls of HHS.

Mia Karr, Print Editor-in-Chief

$63 million. That’s approximately the amount of money that it takes for the Harrisonburg City Public Schools to operate each year. As large as that sum seems, the HCPS budget has been stretched to the brink this year due to huge increases in enrollment over the course of the year. Tracy Shaver, Executive Director of Finance and former principal of HHS, works with principals and others in the school system to determine the budget.

According to Shaver, each year’s budgeting process begins 7 or 8 months before July 1, when the HCPS fiscal year begins.

“All of our fund managers and all of our principals gather requests from within their buildings or within their program areas. They present those those requests to the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, myself, and the central office staff,” Shaver said. “Then we take everybody’s hopes, needs, wants, and dreams and place them into a document.”

Shaver and his team can’t wave their magic wand and grant whatever wishes are desired- they have to build the budget around the money they receive, which comes from three different sources; the federal government, the state of Virginia, and the city of Harrisonburg. In December, Shaver received a proposed budget of $32 million from the state.

“The school board will determine, now, how much money we’re going to ask our city,” Shaver said. “They will be either approving or making adjustments to our budget for next year.”

The budget will then be presented to City Council in April. From that point on, the budget is mostly final.

“The only way you can adjust the funding is through supplemental appropriations throughout the year,” Shaver said. The appropriations have to be approved by the school board and city council.

Over $50 million of the budget goes toward salary and benefits for HCPS staff members, which is nearly 80 percent. Transportation, operations and maintenance, and technology are also large components of the budget. The school system owns almost 4000 computers.

An important part of determining the budget is determining how many students the budget should be built for. Using research from the Weldon Cooper center, Shaver and the finance team were able to predict that this year’s enrollment would be 5115 students. This was a low estimate.

“If we don’t meet the enrollment projections, and we’ve already hired staff, then we have a real problem,” Shaver said.  If the projected enrollment for a given year isn’t reached, the school will have to make significant cuts. So, by necessity, HCPS always gives a low estimate.

Enrollment this year far outpaced the 5115 number. Two dates are used to measure enrollment for budgetary purposes- Sept 30 and March 31. On Sept 30, enrollment was 5255 students, and it has since grown to over 5300 students. On March 31, the state will once again look at the enrollment and make a budget adjustment. Shaver anticipates that the city will receive more money for the state, and the school board can then request additional money. However, there’s no guarantee that the city will grant the request.

This additional money is needed, because the increased enrollment has caused financial strife for the school system. The school has had to hire several new teachers to meet federal requirements, including two new ESL teachers, a new Kindergarten teacher, and a new special education teacher. Each new hire comes with about $65,00 in costs to the school system.

“We can’t overspend the budget that we have by Virginia law,” Shaver said. “…We need to make adjustments for the budget that we have for this year to stay within the budget. Which I don’t think will be a problem. We just have to be conscientious of how we spend our money.”

Principals and budget managers have been asked to examine their budgets for places to cut down on costs. Teachers have been reminded to turn off lights and computers, and to pay close attention to the amount of copies they make and the paper they use.

“We were going to do some painting over Spring Break at some of the schools…but we decided to do some of that painting this summer,” Shaver said.

Shaver is building next year’s budget for 5400 students.

“We’ve never had such a significant enrollment increase,” Shaver said.

Although the increase has been financially taxing, Shaver sees it as a result of the success of our school system.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities for students. I think it’s a very inclusive school system. You don’t see this kind of diversity really anywhere else in the Shenandoah Valley,” Shaver said. “I think people feel comfortable here. I think they know that there’s good education programs here.”

As for now, HCPS is playing the waiting game to see if they receive more funds, but Shaver isn’t too concerned.

“We’re not completely out of whack in regard to overspending, and I just want to make that clear,” Shaver said “…We’re pretty close to where we should be at this point in time, we just have to be very careful…Are we in jeopardy of overspending our budget? Absolutely not. And will we have to make critical or significant cuts? No.”