A low-volume budget hearing

A public hearing held Monday evening on the proposed budgets of Rappahannock County and its school system was a mostly polite affair without fireworks, but with an undercurrent of deep division over how much influence the Board of Supervisors should exercise over school spending.

At issue is whether the Rappahannock County School Board should have complete flexibility in how to spend its proposed $11.6 million budget, or whether the supervisors should approve the budget category-by-category, to insure that money meant for one purpose is not spent on another.

The hearing on a rainy evening attracted about 50 county residents to the high school auditorium, where the Board of Supervisors sat on stage listening to the views of the public as well as the School Board. The supervisors made no decisions Monday, but are scheduled to decide on the level of school funding and whether to approve it as a lump sum or by category at its monthly meeting next Monday, (May 3) at 2 p.m.

Retiring School Superintendent Robert Chappell kicked off the session with a comment reflecting his weariness with annual budget battles. “After 15 public hearings over a period of 15 years, this is my last one. I am here to say, ‘Hallelujah!’ ”

School Board members followed the superintendent in urging the supervisors to approve their proposed 2011 budget, which calls for county funding of $8,509,098 — the same level as the current year. They also made clear that they oppose approval of the budget by category.

“I ask that you approve it at the bottom line and let the School Board do its job” in deciding how to spend the funds, Wesley Mills, chairman of the School Board, told the supervisors. Member Beth Hilscher, who called the budget “lean and clean,” also asked that it be approved as a lump sum and added: “To suggest cuts only calls our judgment and integrity into question.”

Piedmont District member Aline Johnson took a more conciliatory line, thanking the supervisors for their support in the past, saying, “I feel you have been generous to us.”

When the public was called on to speak, 13 citizens rose to the opportunity, offering views both supportive and skeptical of how the School Board has managed its budget over the years.

Steve Carroll of Slate Mills urged the supervisors, school board and citizens “to work together to improve our schools.” He said, “The superintendent and the School Board are not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes” over how county funds are spent. “With a new superintendent coming on, we all need to work together to improve the schools.”

Carroll pointed to a 10-year summary of county expenditures that showed that education spending accounted for 65 percent of total county spending in fiscal year 2000, but only 50 percent of the total in fiscal 2009. “The school budget has been a declining part of the [overall] budget. It has been growing less quickly than the remaining parts of the budget.”

Margaret Lee, a teacher and vice president of the Rappahannock County Education Association, noted that for two years the school budgets have provided no salary increases for employees. But, she added, “We are grateful to them for maintaining all staff positions and benefits.” Unlike many nearby county school systems, no layoffs are planned in Rappahannock but no pay raises are included in the budget either.

The issue of how the supervisors should approve the school budget — either as a lump sum or by category — provoked considerable debate.

In recent years, the Board of Supervisors has approved the budget as a lump sum, giving the School Board flexibility on how to spend the money. But supervisors also have the option of approving the budget by category — not a line-item approach but approval by seven broad categories, such as instruction, pupil transportation, operation and maintenance, and so on.

The county last took that categorical approach about a decade ago when supervisors felt a need to exert more control over spending. This year, the issue has revived, primarily because of complaints by some citizens and Supervisor Ron Frazier of Jackson District that widespread problems with the school’s physical plant — especially energy and lighting systems — indicates that money budgeted for maintenance and repairs may have been diverted elsewhere.

Tom Junk of Sperryville, a frequent critic of the School Board, said, “The school budget should be approved by category,” citing “the failure of the School Board to maintain” the heating and cooling systems and their controls. “The money needs to be accounted for by category,” Junk stated.

Junk was the only speaker who also expressed concerns about non-school spending in the county budget, raising questions about increased spending to promote tourism, for farmland preservation, for public assistance and for operation of county-owned cars.
Bill Dietel of Flint Hill, an outspoken defender of the School Board, followed with a rebuttal, strongly criticizing the idea of approving the school budget by category. “The insanity of a line-item budget . . . was put aside as a bad idea and bad governance and bad policy” years ago, he said. “This is no time to turn the clock back.”

But Roger Cordani, who with Junk is a leader of the Concerned Taxpayers of Rappahannock, disagreed. “You approved budgets to take care of the maintenance” of the schools, he told the supervisors. “The money was not used that way. I am for approving the budget by category.”

Cordani referred to earlier comments by Debora Reina, parent of a RCHS student, who complained that the environment of the school buildings is not healthy for her daughter, who has asthma. Reina mentioned a “sewer-gas smell” in the girls’ locker room, mold problems and the presence of asbestos as aggravating factors for her daughter’s symptoms. “I question why these things have been allowed to go on so long,” Reina said, adding that she is planning to transfer her daughter to another school.

In his comments, Cordani picked up that theme, mentioning that his grandchildren have complained of classrooms being uncomfortably cold or hot because of failing temperature controls. “This is a problem that was caused by not spending the money where it was meant to be spent,” he asserted.

Henry Gorfein of Washington said that even when he moved to the county over 30 years ago people were complaining about leaky roofs and other problems in the school buildings. “We never did get it right to begin with,” he said. He blamed the ongoing facilities problems on “this continual Band-Aiding” approach of piecemeal repairs not done correctly. But unlike others citing maintenance problems, Gorfein opposed approving the school budget by category. “Fund the bottom line,” he urged.

“As a taxpayer, I am extremely irritated,” said Scott St. Clair of Amissville, about what he called the School Board’s failure to maintain the physical facilities of the schools. “I have been here for 13 years” listening to such complaints, “and it is unacceptable,” he said. “The kids should not have to stay [in classrooms] when it is too hot or too cold.”

The dilemma facing the Board of Supervisors is that it has relatively little leverage on where school money is spent unless it uses the category approach to approving the budget. And that situation is complicated this year by receipt of $285,705 in supplemental state aid flowing from special legislation passed this year by the Virginia General Assembly.

The supplemental aid comes with strings attached — it must be spent on instruction (not, for instance, on maintenance and repairs) and it disappears if the county cuts its contribution to the school budget. That pretty well locks the county into approving the requested $8.5 million in local funds.

So to find extra money for the roughly $1 million of needed school repairs, the supervisors could try to cut some non-instructional categories of the school budget, such as administration, pupil transportation or food services. That’s the sticky issue the Board of Supervisors will face next week.

James P. Gannon is the editor and publisher of rappvoice.com, where this article first appeared.

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About James P. Gannon 21 Articles
James P. Gannon is a retired journalist who lives near Flint Hill. In his newspaper career, he served as a reporter and bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, as Editor of The Des Moines Register in Iowa, and as Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit news and a columnist for the Gannett newspapers.