While struggling with budget cuts and staffing reductions that forestall any new local initiatives, with no further reductions, the Department of Education should be able to "maintain and sustain the major programs from the previous fiscal year, but at a lower cost,” Commissioner LaVerne Terry said at budget hearings Wednesday.
Terry was before the Senate Finance Committee to discuss Education's proposed $162.5 million General Fund budget – almost $16 million less than 2012 and $32.5 million below 2010 funding levels. With this year's budget, Education's funding has been reduced by more than $40 million over the past five fiscal years, according to Education officials.
The General Fund budget includes $96 million for personnel wages and salaries, $37.2 million in associated fringe benefits, nearly $4 million for materials and supplies, $12.3 million for mandatory costs and services, and $12.9 million for utilities.
So far this fiscal year, 379 employees have left the department either through retirements, resignations, dismissals or terminations for cause, and more are expected to retire or resign over the next few months, freeing up funding that will help bridge the budget gap, Terry said.
Another 62 employees were slated for layoffs, of whom 13 opted to retire, she said.
The department has about 112 vacancies but is looking to staff only specialized positions that cannot be left open, such as special education, math and science teachers or school nurses, Terry said.
Along with staffing reductions, to make ends meet Education has reduced its cell phones and land lines, cut travel expenses through video-conferencing, shaved $66,000 in rental costs, and recently partnered with the V.I. Energy Office to retrofit 11 schools territorywide with energy efficient lighting and bathroom fixtures, she said.
Hoping to reduce the $5.5 million that Education spends per year on bus service, the department is in the process of hiring a contractor to help review bus routes and audit current busing bills, Terry said. “We are reviewing everything to see if there are any other savings we can generate.”
The department has contracted Chartwells Dining to re-assess the school kitchens, from the food that's served to the employees that are hired, and to find ways to be more “efficient and effective” with the National School Lunch Program, which serves 75 percent of the territory’s student population, Terry said.
In some relative good news, Terry reported the annual public school dropout rate has been declining by about 1 percent per year for the last several years, from 8 percent in 2007-08, to 5 percent in 2010-11.
The cohort graduation rate, or the percentage of freshmen who go on to graduate four years later, is 64.4 percent, Terry said. That figure is lower than the U.S. average of about 75 percent, but higher than many states, including Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and South Carolina.
No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing.