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Jennie Dean was a former slave who founded the Manassas Industrial School for African American children in 1893.

As the Manassas City Council and School Board move toward adoption of their fiscal year 2022 budgets, there’s an opportunity for both to take one long-discussed priority off the shelf by beginning to fund a new Jennie Dean Elementary School.

But some are questioning whether the money set aside for Dean could be put to better use on the operational side.

City Manager Pat Pate’s proposed budget, presented to the council last week, would commit $6 million to the school division’s debt service payments, about $500,000 more than last year’s budget, which paid debt service on the division’s existing construction bonds. The excess half million would be set aside for future debt service on Dean, which Manassas City Public Schools has listed in its five-year capital improvement program for 2026.

Pate’s idea would have that $6 million increase by 2% annually, and in two years the school system’s existing debt payments are scheduled to drop off, leaving more to be set aside for Dean. Between the money set aside and development proffers to the division, Pate told InsideNoVa, his plan would leave enough set aside for future debt payments so that the city could issue the roughly $63 million in bonds needed for the new school without hiking the city’s tax rate.

“That creates a funding system that will actually pay for the debt of the school,” Pate said. “What we’re saying right now is that, yes, at [fiscal year] ’26, council still has to vote to issue the debt, but if you follow the plan that we’ve put in the budget this year … that we will not have to raise taxes in ’26 to pay for the school.”

The council and School Board have both discussed replacing Dean for years. Money may have been set aside in the city’s budget last year to start the process, but Pate ultimately asked that the city withhold it out of fear that the COVID-19 pandemic, which was just starting to close schools and businesses, would lead to revenue shortages for the city. Overall, the city ended up seeing increased revenue last year.

Jennie Dean was built in 1959, with additions in 1977 and 1990, and according to the school division staff, the need for costly renovations that would exceed 75% of the cost of a new building are around the corner. School Board Chair Sanford Williams says 2026 would be when the division will have to decide to move forward with the replacement or begin repairing roofing, HVAC systems and more.

The governing bodies will meet to discuss the school system’s budget next month ahead of its final adoption. Williams said that the two are trying to meet more frequently and have more open lines of communication. A friend of Mayor Michelle Davis-Younger, who took office in January, Williams said their personal relationship has been helpful in cultivating a strong working relationship.

“This year we’re going to try something a little bit different, we’re going to aim to meet more frequently. In April we will present our budget to them. I talk with the mayor not infrequently, and some of the folks on council,” Williams said.

But city and state allocations to the school system haven’t kept pace with inflation for some time, leaving some of the school division’s self-reported funding needs unmet in previous budgets. When the school system’s finance director, Andy Hawkins, presented his operating budget to the school board for next year, it included an increase in city allocation of just 1.7%. The city is the division’s single biggest funding source, ahead of the state and federal governments, and in the past two budget cycles the increases in city funding have been the two smallest since 2015.

Meanwhile, the division’s needs grow every year. In the current year, 66% of Manassas students qualify for free and reduced lunch, up from less than 50% a decade ago, and the division has the highest rate of English-language learners in the state.

When Pate introduced his proposed rate, it included a small cut in the real estate tax rate. Vice Mayor Pam Sebesky said the cut concerned her, because the additional revenue might be better used on the school division’s needs.

The School Board met Tuesday night for a budget work session. Tim Demeria, the longest-serving member of the board, told InsideNoVa he is concerned about the long-term operating money for the division. He also raised objections over the way the city would dictate where the debt service money would go.

“Overall I am pleased with the city manager’s proposed budget … I like the idea of putting money aside for future construction, I don’t like the suggestion that Council should handle the School Board’s debt service. This board has been fiscally sound for 45 years, I don’t see the point in changing what has worked for nearly five decades,” Demeria said. “My main concern is funding the operations side of our budget. Putting money aside for buildings is a great idea unless it takes away from funding for what is most important to any school system, our staff.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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