City council considers tax, spending cuts to combat funding gap

Public schools lack revenue to remain in line with long-term tax scheme

A City of Charlottesville and Charlottesville School District joint commission presented a report Tuesday about the status of public education funding in Charlottesville and potential ways to combat funding gaps.

The report collected conclusions gathered since the commission’s creation in August pointing toward a large gap between the funding requirements of Charlottesville’s public schools and the revenue that would be gathered under the current taxing scheme.

According to the report, current estimates for the budget gap are between $2 and $4 million per year, depending upon “how the city economy fares, how property assessments change, what happens to school costs and whether the state and federal governments step forward to re-assume a greater share of school costs.”

Because of this gap, maintaining the current quality of Charlottesville schools will “require both revenue enhancements, ongoing programmatic review, and selective cost savings to achieve maximum efficiency in the use of tax dollars without loss of quality or services to our students,” according to the report.

Former Charlottesville Mayor Elizabeth “Bitsy” Waters, a member of the joint commission, said one part of the commission’s job was to explain how the gap came about.

“We really tried to understand why it was we have a significant funding gap for our public schools, what kind of things led us to this point.” Waters said. “[W]e learned it was many things, from decline in state funding, to local revenue sources that were stagnant or declining as a result of the extended recession.”

Councilwoman Kristin Szakos also said the University was a large factor in education funding for city schools.

“One of the things that [the commission] also noted is the pressure of the University on the city, and how we end up with a lot of pressure on our housing costs because … the University doesn’t really house many students,” Szakos said. “But also, having the University here is one of the reasons that we have such great schools.”

Waters said there was significant room to increase school revenues, and the report also advanced a number of options, which they termed “Action Alternatives,” designed to narrow the gap. She said the Action Alternatives were divided into near-term and longer-term solutions for City Council and the School Board to consider.

Among the near-term options were raising the meals tax or real estate tax, which are both cited as among the lowest in the state, as well as the lodging tax, which is fairly average for Virginia. Additionally, they included the reassessment of real estate within the city, raising tuition for out-of-district students and finding operational savings within the school system.

Longer-term options included “increasing the amount and quality [of] middle income housing in city neighborhoods,” seeking compensation from the University to offset the decline in real estate revenues due to the University buying land in Charlottesville, and closing an elementary school.

Szakos said that there is no agreement among Council members on these options, and they will discuss them in forming a budget in the coming months.

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