Manassas school officials are looking to add 4.5% to the school division’s upcoming budget, according to figures presented to the school board Tuesday night.

Manassas Schools Superintendent Kevin Newman is recommending a $126 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year, including $108.7 million for school operations.

The school board has a goal of making the district’s teacher salaries more competitive compared to nearby districts. The proposed budget includes a 2% cost-of-living adjustment and a step increase to average approximately 4.4%.

Manassas’s budgeted average teacher salary for the 2020 fiscal year was $68,415, less than the averages in nearby Loudoun and Prince William counties by $8,404 and $1,082, respectively, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“What our goal was, this year at the beginning before we knew all the numbers, was to try to close the gap to get closer to the marketplace,” Newman said. “Once we received the numbers, that goal changed. The goal was not to lose ground on our local competition.”

As outlined by the City Council earlier this year, the district will receive a 1.6% increase in funding from the city, amounting to $954,649. Newman and Andy Hawkins, the district’s executive director of finance and operations, are projecting a 6.5% funding increase from the state, based on Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget.

But the picture painted at Tuesday night’s school board meeting was one of a district whose needs are outpacing its funding. Neither state nor city funding has kept pace with inflation in over a decade.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch has almost tripled since the 2005-2006 school year, growing to 65%. And the district has the highest percentage of English-language learners in the state at 49%.

According to Newman, the result is another budget where classrooms from grades 4 to 12 won’t meet a target student-teacher ratio of 25-1, instead they would hold steady at 28-1. The maintenance department’s sole request of a second plumber would go unfunded as well, and the budget would get no closer to replacing Jennie Dean Elementary, which many city and school board leaders believe has long needed to be replaced.

“If our funding doesn’t start to increase to match our enrollment, I don’t know how long we can keep the shell game going, and some things are going to have to be cut,” said school board member Tim Demeria at Tuesday night’s meeting. “Somewhere, some way, somebody’s going to have to come up with some more funds.”

Officials are also projecting more students, with 110 additional students bringing enrollment to about 7,810 students by September 2021. Over the last decade, the district has grown by about 100 students per year on average.

The proposed budget focuses closely on the district’s lone high school, Osbourn High, where funding would be allocated for a new counselor position and a new psychologist position. The school division is also adding two “gifted and talented” teachers and a workforce development coordinator.

“Our students come to us with more needs now than they ever have in the past,” Hawkins said. “So we’re adding a counselor and a psychologist position to help with the true needs of the student population.”

Additionally, the school would get a new on-time graduation coordinator, who would be responsible for working with high school students of all grades at risk of dropping out or not meeting graduation requirements on time. According to state numbers, 15.6% of Osbourn’s Class of 2019 students dropped out, and 79.2% graduated.

“That’s one of the concerns that we have as far as accreditation and it’s important to us that our students are able to graduate on time,” Newman said.

Newman argued that if the goal is to have students graduating high school on time, the focus has to start before students enter the ninth grade. To that end, Metz Middle School would get an additional social studies and science teacher.

And both Metz and Mayfield Intermediate School would receive full-time police officers.

“If we don’t meet the needs of five elementary schools and the two intermediate, it’s not going to matter what we do at Osbourn,” Newman said. “So we’re building foundations and then we’re going to finish off the structure as far as student success at Osbourn.”

According to Hawkins, teachers and administrators requested roughly $123 million for the coming fiscal year, from which officials had to cut about $15 million to get to the proposed $108.7 million in school operating funds.

“Even though there are a lot of good things in this budget to be proud of, there are still a lot of needs that are out there in our schools,” Hawkins said.