Manassas Journal Messenger | Council reassesses school funding

The Manassas City School Board has several million dollars saved in an account for building improvements and unexpected revenue shortages. That “rainy day” fund is too high, especially when building improvements are lacking, according to some City Council members.

Receiving $43.7 million from the city in the 2005-2006 school year, the school division is the city’s biggest expenditure.

The City Council held a work session Monday night to discuss its revenue sharing agreement with the School Board. That agreement, established in 2001, automatically gives 56.2 percent of the city’s uncommitted revenue to the schools. That agreement also stipulates that the school division annually prepare a five-year budget plan, as well as a building maintenance plan, to the City Council.

Prince William County, Manassas Park and Arlington County have established such agreements, which place most of the financial accountability and responsibility for school operations with the school divisions.

Prior to 2001, Manassas schools requested money annually based on their needs after state and federal funding.

City Council members have the option of maintaining the current agreement, modifying it or dissolving it completely, according to City Manager Lawrence Hughes. Though no City Council members said they wanted to do away with it completely, most, including council members Robert Oliver and Judith Hays, do want to modify it.

“The fact that they’ve been able to build up such a huge reserve … that we just never thought they could build up because they would be spending it … on capital improvements,” Hays said.

While several City Council members said the revenue sharing agreement has been advantageous to both bodies over the past few years, large school division fund balances, such as $9.3 million in 2004, are unacceptable. Rapidly rising real estate tax assessments during the past several years — 26 percent in 2004 — have prompted the City Council to continue to lower the real estate tax rates, most recently by 15 cents to $1 for fiscal year 2006. Still, taxpayers are scrutinizing how their money is being spent, or not spent, said Mayor Douglas Waldron.

“They want to see that our schools are maintained and that’s our responsibility, too,” said Waldron, who said that the possible modifications to the revenue sharing agreement could be the inclusion of tax triggers, which are tax relief based on excess revenue, specifying categories where money should be directed or placing a cap on the school division’s fund balance.

School Board member Scott Albrecht, who is also a member of the schools’ finance committee, said that the schools are open to working with the city but the school division is striving to be conservative with taxpayers’ money. More education mandates and changing student demographics increase costs, Albrecht said.

“We make do with what we have,” said Albrecht, who said the school division’s fund balance will be nearly exhausted by 2008 because of the cost of a new fifth- and sixth-grade intermediate school and other school improvements.

Waldron suggested that both bodies’ finance committees work together to suggest possible modifications to the existing agreement.

Staff writer Tory N. Parrish can be reached at (703) 368-6570.

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