Weighing in on the (difficult) 2012-2013 school budget

For the last few weeks, this newspaper has been duly covering Rappahannock County’s school budget developments. Due to fiscal and pension-fund realities at the state level and other circumstances largely out of local hands, an increase seems likely for 2012-2013 over the $12.6 million that’s been allocated to the county’s school division for each of the last five years.

Which means, in our view, that instead of ignoring news of school and county budget developments, this year more of us will be paying attention.

We present these highlights from the school board’s public hearing Tuesday (March 13) on its proposed 2012-2013 budget – a budget that is actually not yet officially “proposed,” primarily because legislators in Richmond haven’t yet done their part – as proof that, this year, many Rappahannock County citizens are indeed paying attention.

Sharon Kilpatrick, Stonewall district

I’m concerned that we have come out of a series of years when teachers haven’t gotten raises, and if I am correct, they haven’t even been able to move up the scale as far as their number of years teaching. I think before we increase the scale, we need to be sure everybody is properly placed on it – unless you’ve decided to use something other than years teaching to determine salary. I’m as grateful as anybody to have had my taxes reduced, and then held, but I think it’s unrealistic to think that we can go on, year after year, not giving our employees any kind of increase in their pay.

Hurley Smith, Hampton district

[“Somebody’s gotta do it,” Smith said before rising to greet the podium.]

You seem to be running an extremely expensive school operation for a declining population, and for declining results. I refer to the letter in the Rappahannock News this last week that indicated how poorly this school district is doing, in terms of performance of it’s children. I think, as a taxpayer, what you ought to be doing is looking at your budget – and I’m not opposed to teachers getting a raise – but I think you should make a good-faith effort to find places in your budget where you can actually cut, rather than increase.

Ron Makela, Jackson district

Basically, our system is a $12 million business, and the product is our children’s future – and that’s a pretty important product . . . I’m in favor of the salary increase. That’s been needed. They’ve sacrificed, and we need to make up for that. At the same time – and I’m not gonna get into it – but we need to give them the best benefit program we can afford, and also that is competitive . . . I am not opposed to a tax increase. If we look at all these factors, and then come up with a reasonable approach, and that includes a tax increase, then bring it on.

Bill Dietl, Wakefield district

[We include here Dietl’s full comments – the only statement of the evening followed by spontaneous outburst of applause.]

I appear before you as a citizen, a taxpayer, a former teacher and principal, as a parent, grandparent and great-grandparent. In the course of almost 32 years of living in the county, I and my wife have seen many ups and downs in the life of the public school system. In recent years we’ve seen marked improvements. And I find it disturbing that at a time when there is conversation about a budget, little is said about the significant improvements in recent years. It’s as though they had never occurred. This evening you’ve honored the students and faculty who’ve produced a state-honored band. You might’ve talked about the students and the faculty who have put together a first-class debate team.

When schools suffer a drop in enrollment, that makes the task of building a first-rate education program that much more difficult. For my friends in the community who’ve not had the experience of working in an educational institution, I would remind you – and the board of supervisors especially – that the state controls much of what teachers are asked to do. There are requirements for the diploma, and those requirements have to be met, whether there are three students or 20 students.

The school board and the superintendent at this time of year are charged by some citizens to bear in mind, above all else, their taxes. That, I submit, is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to our children, and it is to make sure they are offered the best possible education.

Some of the previous speakers have suggested that that education could be improved, and I’m sure the superintendent and his colleagues would agree. And with the active support of the board of education, and the citizenry, I think we can look forward to those improvements in the years immediately ahead. I find it disturbing to read in the newspaper, articles that cite certain statistics. The idea is abroad in the land, that nonprofit and governmental institutions – or government-supported institutions like our public school – should not have an administrative budget in excess of 10 percent.

I haven’t a clue as to where those people get those numbers from. Anyone familiar with what it takes to meet the obligations of the state of Virginia – or any state – to carry out all the duties and responsibilities that the community imposes, would think that any school that could do it for 10 percent was a marvel. Education is not cheap. And the notion, somehow, that you all are going to save the taxpayers, is misplaced. Your task is to produce first-rate education and opportunity, encouragement to our students.

The county is not broke. We are not a poor county – though we have more than our fair share of those who are less fortunate, financially. We are burdened by a state government that prevents us from taxing those who can afford to pay more. And as many people in this room will testify, there are people who’ve been much too silent, who now need to speak up and say that we have been very fortunate in recent years that the taxes have not risen. But ladies and gentlemen, we are about to pay the price. You can’t have a first-rate educational system without paying for it.

Deferred maintenance in the past years has cost us a fortune. There were those who were more concerned with making sure that the tax increase was a bare minimum than they were to think about the burden taxpayers 10, 20 years down the road were going to pay when those physical facilities fell in. Let’s not make the same mistake with building a first-rate faculty.

I salute all of you. With only one exception, you are new to this task. You are not well-paid, but your fellow citizens put you here for a reason, and that is to hold up the future of our children – and that requires you to speak the truth, to all, including the powerful. Good luck. I hope it all turns out well.

Roger Cordani, Wakefield district

I’m the one with the rap that’s against the school board – or against the school system – even though I had 10 grandchildren going here . . . Personally, I think you’re not doing good. And that’s the reason why my son didn’t go to Rappahannock County. It’s also the reason why you lost five students that were my grandchildren, that are not in Rappahannock County this year. And there’ll be another grandchild that will not be coming here next year . . . Most people are struggling. A 30 percent increase in their electric bill last year. And we have a decrease in our school population; I can’t believe that you came up with an increase in the budget. I think it’s a slap in the face to all the working citizens in this county . . . I really worry about the other grandkids that are going here. I can’t believe that you would ask for this type of increase, with the performance that you’re giving out. It’s not right.

Gary Light, Stonewall district

My kids have only been in the public school system for three years now, so I haven’t dealt with the program very much. But I’ve had a markedly different experience . . . No one wants to pay more taxes than they have to, and I think the right way to think about this – as Dr. Boone has suggested – is to figure out what the school needs – a lot of the cost drivers are external – the challenges facing the school are aggravated by the economic conditions, and the fact is, economically disadvantaged kids need more help and more education, not less . . . I think the single most important thing – and the thing we’ll most consider as we make the decision year-by-year to continue to send our kids to the public schools – is what those teachers have to offer. And we see teachers spending their own out of pocket money to supply resources. And I just don’t think that the current situation is anything extravagant, and we would personally be willing to contribute more to see continuing opportunities to improve the school system.

Tom Junk, Piedmont district

I’ve been coming down here for a long time, been in the county for 28 years, been coming to these meetings for 25 years . . . Why is it a declining enrollment? Because we’ve got a bunch of old people moving out here. And that’s just a fact of life . . . So before you start increasing, if someone wants to give more money, why don’t they give it? If they feel that it’s unfair, why don’t they give more money to the school system? It’s unfair to ask the people that are struggling out here for another $200 from people who are on fixed income . . .

Henry Gorfein, Hampton district

I’m pretty familiar with the workings of the school board, having intimate contact with it. I’ve heard it all. I’ve been living in this county now for nearly 35 years, and keep hearing the same arguments over and over again, and you keep kicking the can down the road, so to speak. People complain about maintenance not being done in schools; these are the same people that complained perhaps about hiring a full-time maintenance man, which our school did not . . . Now what’s happening is the taxpayers now are picking up the burden of perhaps where the taxpayers 10 years ago should have picked up the burden . . . Somehow the school board and the schools itself and the teachers, I feel there is somewhat of a resistance to asking the community to partake. You send home letters to the parents, but a lot of people who are interested in the community don’t know – if it wasn’t for Miss Hitt sending out something on RappNet about the Donkey Basketball Game; I went there, there were over 400 people there; it was a terrific event; everybody had a good time; it was really good for this community. It was wonderful, I saw kids this high and I saw people this high. It was just a great thing, and I think you should do more of that, and try and get the community more interested in what’s happening in this school.

Jeff Knight, Hampton district

It was said earlier this evening that it is the board’s job is simply to do what’s best for the students. While I agree with that, I think the job is also to do it in a manner that is as efficient to the people who underwrite the school system in our county. When I attended the work session earlier this month, I was a little surprised to see that – in this economy, with the bombs that were already dropped on the school, in terms of VRS and health care – that all that were floated were possible additions to the budget. And some of it was, quite frankly, outlandish. And they left this person, me, with the impression that there wasn’t a whole lot of regard for the dollars involved, and that it was simply just a list that was being put out – and they were all additions, not one single suggested cut in the budget.

Aline Johnson, school board vice chair

We have three new members – that’s true – and I’m the oldest one. And as I look around this room, I think I’m the oldest one in this room. And I can also say, I think I’ve probably been paying taxes longer than anybody in this room – it’s approximately 60 years. And everybody that knows me knows I’m a conservative . . . I’ve counted pennies all my life, but education to me has been my passion. I think the best investment you could ever have with your tax dollar is to educate a child; whether it’s your child or somebody else’s child, it doesn’t make any difference to me. And I think that, when you see this budget, it’s gonna be a budget of needs. There’s not one thing on this budget that’s on the wish list, or that I want.

And I feel that we need to give our whole staff an increase in salary, because this would be the fifth year they haven’t had one. They need it, and more than need, they deserve it. We have a bunch of dedicated teachers that not only teach, they care. They are a loving bunch, and they teach a child more than you can get from a textbook, as someone just said . . . I’ve never seen teachers with special-ed kids – and I’ve been around a lot of schools – that are as caring and as loving as our teachers are.

And you talk about cutting the benefits . . . the benefits help us to retain our teachers; they could go lots of places and get more salary that they’re getting here. And besides – the places that they have to live – the rent is much higher in this county, and they have to go [elsewhere] to most any surrounding county for a lot of the needs that they have. I know the economy’s tight. I’ve been there. I mean I was raised in the Depression, and I’m telling you that our school system is far beyond what I’ve ever seen when I came up . . . at that time, if you expected an education, you had to get it outside of the school; you were more likely self-educated.

And I’m just very passionate about giving teachers the salary increase. They need it. And I know that I’m on this board to be supportive of our employees, and I know the main thing is to educate every child in this county, so that when they go through these doors they can know where they can go – and hopefully they can get where they want to get. And I just feel that we’re on the best track, and I’m going to continue to be there. Thank you.

Superintendent Aldridge Boone

I would like to say that a lot of the comments here tonight are predicated upon the fact that I have submitted a budget to the school board; I have not. I haven’t given the school board a number. What I did was, I produced a document that said, “These are some possible additions to the budget, as envisioning a worst case scenario,” period. There have been no decisions made as far as what I would put into the budget, from a totals standpoint . . . I think if you’re going to come to this process, and you’re going to give us information – because I’m an information junkie, I want to hear from everybody, because I take what you say into consideration – I think that we have a responsibility, as citizens, as school board members, as the superintendent and everyone, to make sure that the information that we put forward is correct information – and I have not seen that tonight, from some of you. The information you put forward sounds good as far as an argument is concerned . . .

I think that we’re transparent as far as this budget document is concerned. I think that we could cause some problems by even publishing that document, but in an effort to let you know what was going on and what could possibly happen. That document was public. If you really think about it, if I hadn’t put that document out there until March 20, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. And I thought about all that while we were going through this particular process. So I will give you a detailed budget briefing Tuesday night. I will address some of the issues that have been brought forth, as far as bang for the buck, how much a student costs, benefits, everything that’s going to possibly be added, we’ll show you ways in which the budget has been reduced.