Supervisors trim, approve school budget

By a 3-2 vote at its afternoon meeting Monday (May 4), the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors passed Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek’s motion to reduce this year’s proposed $94,000 increase in the county’s share of a $12.9 million school budget by about $44,000.

With “yes” votes by Biniek and retiring Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee and “no” votes by Jackson district’s Ron Frazier and Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish — both of whom said they supported no increase in the local school-budget share this year — the vote came around to board chair Roger Welch, who’d just finished saying he’d received more calls this year than in recent memory from constituents who didn’t want property taxes to go up, as they’re proposed to do by 2 cents per $100 assessed value, if the county’s $22.83 draft budget is approved next month.

After a long pause, Welch said “Aye,” adding quickly: “If I err, I’m going to err on the side of education.”

The school board will consider at its monthly meeting (6 p.m. next Tuesday, May 12 at the high school) a list of superintendent Donna Matthews’ proposed cuts to comply with the supervisors’ decision to trim what was a 1-percent increase in the 2015-2016 budget (which takes effect July 1), Matthews said Wednesday.

Overall by percentage, the school division’s administration costs in the new budget rose most sharply — about 7 percent — due to proposed increases to school board member compensation (from $100 to $200 a month, putting them on par with the supervisors’ monthly stipend), and an appropriation for board legal expenses (the board having been in court recently for alleged violations of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act).

The budget also included funding for a decision the board made in November to pay up to $500 a month as a supplement toward individual health coverage for board members. It also included $20,000 for a part-time athletic trainer. In contrast, instructional costs — by far the division’s biggest expense, an $8.64 million chunk of the new budget — went up only about 2 percent, or $157,000, over last year.

“I am meeting with the finance committee on Friday,” Matthews said. “The board will have a list of my best suggestions at Tuesday’s meeting.”

When the supervisors’ agenda item to act on the school budget came around, Biniek spoke up first, saying he had “a comment.”

“I think we have a good school system here,” Biniek. “I think we have a good staff, good teachers, I think it’s important that we recognize them, appreciate them and support them.”

Biniek’s comment ended with a motion to “compromise” on the proposed $94,000 local-share increase by limiting it to $50,000. Lee seconded it, opening the floor to discussion among the supervisors.

“I know . . . a few members of this board don’t like to get into the tall grass of the school budget,” said Frazier. “But we have a responsibility that’s been placed on the members of this board by the general assembly, and sometimes you have to get into the tall grass.”

Frazier cited statistics from the superintendent that said at least four school buses had “gone through seven engine replacements” in recent years, and said, “You know something is wrong.”

Frazier also criticized the line item added for legal expenses, saying a constituent pointed out that “it looked like you were preparing to do it again . . . . There’s no money in the line item for training, but there is for legal expenses.” He said he believed the school budget should not increase this year.

“There are increases in this budget that haven’t been there before,” said Parrish, citing the legal expense, the proposed trainer and other administration expenses. “I feel the teachers have been taken care of, for now . . . we all have to work together, and I believe it’s possible to get away this year without any increase in our real estate taxes. I have the utmost confidence in the school board’s abilities [to deal with no increase in local funds this year].”

Biniek said the $50,000 increase he proposed would cover mostly increased health-insurance costs, but wouldn’t cover such proposed costs as the athletic trainer or increased legal expenses. “It would more or less be level funding, I thought,” he said, “and would just allow them to cover increased fixed expenses.”

Frazier pointed out that even with the county’s high composite-index score — which means the state only pays for 20 percent of “required” school division costs, the other 80 percent being covered primarily by local funds — the state does not pay for costs that are not considered “required” for a school divison of this size (900 students). He said the facilities director, the athletic director and the athletic trainer fall under the “not required” category, which means they’re entirely locally funded.

“I certainly don’t like raising taxes any more than anyone else does,” Welch said, before the board voted, citing the calls he’d fielded by more than a few “mostly older women, living alone on fixed incomes.

“This is just a hard job,” he added. “This is too hard a job.”

Rappahannock University

In other action, the board heard a brief presentation by Doug Schiffman, a longtime Sperryville resident who’s been working for more than a decade on what he now calls “Rappahannock University” — a collaborative effort by a number of local groups and individuals to bring together opportunities for “lifetime learning,” uniquely Rappahannock-themed classes, lectures and clubs, with other possible opportunities for workforce development.

“The fact that we don’t have a physical university nearby shouldn’t be an obstacle,” said Schiffman, who said the group that’s been discussing the project has most recently included County Administrator John McCarthy, Washington Mayor John Sullivan, Headwaters Foundation, the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC), Child Care & Learning Center (CCLC), the local public school division, the Rappahannock News and both Lord Fairfax Community College and George Mason University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

“Because Rappahannock University itself doesn’t yet exist,” Schiffman said, he was there to ask the county to agree — at no financial obligation — to sign a memorandum of agreement with GMU’s Osher Institute, which has expressed interest in allowing a future Rapp University organization to become an “affiliate” of the institute, which would allow its 1,200 to 1,300 members to enroll in courses put together and held in Rappahannock.

The supervisors agreed. Schiffman said OLLI will submit the memorandum to their full board of directors.

Lord Fairfax Community College, Schiffman also pointed out, has expressed interest in writing a grant proposal with Rappahannock University’s organizers, with the goal of a possible future medical-career training facility in the county. The Fauquier Health Foundation has encouraged such a proposal for its fall round of grant submissions, Schiffman said, most likely for an initial planning grant that would study its feasbility.

(A more in-depth story on Rappahannock University will appear in next week’s Rappahannock News.)

Unpaved roads, slow going

Two separate groups of county residents who live on unpaved — and, as nearly every one of them stood to tell the supervisors, poorly maintained — roads were present for the supervisors’ 7 p.m. hearing Monday on its approval of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s six-year secondary road plan for Rappahannock.

VDOT asks the supervisors to approve the rolling six-year plan annually. In fiscal year 2016 (which begins this July 1), VDOT’s total available funds for paving qualifying secondary roads is about $203,000.

For perspective, McCarthy said during the hearing, the available annual funds when he first signed on to the county administrator job in the mid-1980s were closer to $700,000.

Harold Beebout and a dozen of his neighbors along Rolling Road south of Sperryville asked the supervisors to make paving of Rolling Road (which is already on the six-year plan) a higher priority. VDOT program specialist Gregory Banks told the supervisors that Rolling Road was next on the list, after Aaron Mountain Road (a project already underway), so raising its priority wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Turkey Ridge Road resident Paul Komar, accompanied by a group of his neighbors, presented the supervisors with a petition signed by 20 of the 28 residents who live on the Castleton road, in the county’s southern end, or along lanes that intersect with it.

Turkey Ridge is not on the six-year plan; Komar was there Monday night in part to present the petition asking that the dangerous and “disintegrating” road be paved under the state’s Rural Rustic Road program, and in part to dispute comments made at last month’s supervisors’ session by VDOT program specialist Gregory Banks, who told the supervisors then that paving the 4.1 miles of Turkey Ridge road would cost “multiple millions.”

Banks defended his statements, although he lowered the estimate to “possibly $1.5 or $2.5 million,” but it was clear that whatever the cost, as McCarthy put it, “adding Turkey Ridge to the six-year plan would basically make it a 12-year plan.”

Chris and Annemarie Hetzer, who’d signed Komar’s petition, said they mostly were upset by the level of maintenance of Turkey Ridge Road by VDOT’s maintenance division (which is not part of the six-year road improvement budget).

“I paid $4,100 in personal property taxes to this county last year, just on vehicles,” said Chris Hetzer, who said he has properties at either end of the road. “I mean, 4.1 miles long, and if you get 40 yards of gravel in three months, you’ve done something. VDOT won’t maintain it. And if I call VDOT, they tell me to talk to you guys.

“So how do I do something about the road?” Hetzer said. “I’ve gotta drive that road, pulling equipment out, trailers, everything. Who do I send the bill to? Five alignments on one vehicle alone last year.”

McCarthy said the solution, however unlikely, would be to persuade Virginia to allocate more money to VDOT’s road programs. “In 1988, there was $688,000 in the secondary road budget — and those are not 2015 dollars, those are 1988 dollars. That paid for a lot of paving. And that is just not the case today.”

Though the supervisors unenthusiastically but unanimously approved the six-year plan as submitted by VDOT, they asked Banks to add Turkey Ridge Road to the list of future projects to be added to the plan.

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