The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, in a tense , at times stormy meeting, approved the School Board’s $11.6 million budget Monday after narrowly defeating an effort supported by two supervisors to allocate how the money is spent.
The big issue before the supervisors was not the total amount of money sought in the 2011 school budget, but whether or not to approve the amount as a lump sum or by spending categories, which would have limited the School Board’s ability to shift funds from one purpose to another.
The Board of Supervisors was closely divided on that issue, and the outcome hinged on the decisions of one supervisor, Chris Parrish of Stonewall-Hawthorne District, who joined the board in January. Parrish played the decisive role on two separate motions, first abstaining on a motion to approve the budget by category, then voting in favor of approving the School Board’s bottom-line total of $11.6 million.
The question of how to manage the school budget emerged strongly this year on evidence of widespread failure of the school buildings’ heating, cooling and lighting systems, leading to charges that money approved for maintenance and repairs in past budgets had not been spent on those purposes. The issue was spearheaded by Jackson District Supervisor Ron Frazier and supporting citizens.
The drama played out at Monday afternoon’s supervisors meeting, at which members of the School Board tried to present fresh ideas on how to cut some spending that they previously had proposed and approved, with Frazier objecting that it was too late for them to add anything to the Board of Supervisors’ agenda for the meeting.
In an effort to head off categorical approval of their budget, School Board Chairman Wes Mills and Vice Chairman Aline Johnson had drafted a letter dated May 3 to the supervisors outlining new cuts to their budget that would free $150,000 to be put toward a plan to renovate the school buildings. Johnson rose to outline those new cuts, but Frazier’s objection prevented her from reading the letter or explaining the promised spending cuts.
The Mills-Johnson letter was not officially before the meeting, but each supervisor had been handed a copy by Johnson. It said: “If the Board of Supervisors approves the budget as submitted by bottom line, the School Board’s Finance Committee will recommend to the full Board at its next regular meeting on May 11 the following . . . .”
It then outlined several promised cuts not yet acted upon by the School Board. The biggest cut would come from not replacing a teacher (not identified by name) who is retiring after 42 years — $78,916, reflecting the teacher’s annual salary of $59,790, $8,113 in health insurance costs, $6,439 in retirement benefit costs and $4,574 in federal tax costs of this one teacher. The Mills-Johnson letter also promised a saving of $46,084 in the schools’ Anthem health-insurance costs due to less-than-budgeted premium increases, and $25,000 for the cost of a proposed bus purchase.
These new-found savings of $150,000 would be transferred to the debt-service category of the school budget, the letter said, to be “earmarked annually for a period of 10 years” to pay down an expected borrowing of $1 million or more to finance the needed school building repairs.
It was a move that may have had decisive impact on the outcome, but officially could not be considered at the meeting. County Administrator John McCarthy told supervisors that only the school budget presented at public hearing on April 26 was properly before them for decision.
As the supervisors took up the discussion, Frazier moved first, rising to display a set of seven wrenches plus an adjustable wrench as a metaphor for the decision before them. Virginia law allows county supervisors to approve school budgets by bottom-line figure or by broad categories, he noted.
“The General Assembly gave us the tools to work with, and we haven’t been using them,” Frazier said. “We can’t always fix something with a one-size-fits-all wrench,” he said, referring to bottom-line approval. “Categorical approval will give us the opportunity to fix that . . . . Categorical approval is the tool we can use this year to be sure maintenance needs will be met.”
Frazier initially offered a motion to approve the budget by category and to shift $130,000 from the administration, attendance and health category to debt service. But his motion encountered resistance from Piedmont District Supervisor Mike Biniek and Parrish.
Biniek said categorical approval would “take away the tools” from the School Board and superintendent to adjust their budget as needed. Parrish said he felt “uncomfortable” making a decision on spending by category. “It would be fairly devastating for them to lose what they have in the administration” category, he said.
Mentioning the letter from Mills and Johnson, Parrish added that the choice was to either trust the School Board to make the cuts promised in the letter or to approve the budget by categories.
Supervisor Bryant Lee advocated approving the budget by bottom line to “give the opportunity to the School Board to do their job.” Chairman Roger Welch of Wakefield District said he was “hoping I didn’t have to speak today to give my opinion” on the issue. He pointed out that the School Board budget asked no more county money than last year, and no new taxes. But he added, “The maintenance in the schools has been deteriorating for seven or eight years. There is nothing we can do now but fix it.”
Welch then asked if any of the supervisors would second Frazier’s motion. When none did, Frazier moved to amend his motion so that it would not specify the $130,000 cut in the administration category, but would approve the budget by seven broad categories — with specific appropriations for each category to be made in June after consultations with the School Board. Welch seconded the amended motion.
Frazier and Welch voted in favor of this modified categorical approval, and Lee and Biniek voted against it. That left the decision up to Parrish, who hesitated, then said, “It may be chicken, but I am going to abstain.” That meant the motion failed on a 2-2 deadlock. Lee then moved to approve the $11,592,166 School Board budget by its lump sum bottom line. On the roll call, Frazier and Welch voted no. Parrish joined Lee and Biniek to provide a 3-2 majority in favor of bottom-line approval of the budget.
A public comment period followed the voting, marked by strong words and emotion.
Roger Cordani of Flint Hill, one of the leaders of the Concerned Taxpayers of Rappahannock, verbally assaulted Parrish. “Your mumbo-jumbo was a bunch of garbage!” he exclaimed. “It should have been done by category. You are failing to do your job. You should resign.”
Cordani’s outburst triggered shouts of “Order! Order!” from the audience and efforts by Welch to calm the rhetoric. But Cordani persisted, turning his fire on Lee and Biniek before storming out of the meeting.
Demaris Miller of Washington thanked Frazier for his efforts on the issue and told the supervisors, “You are going to have to make tough decisions. The taxpayers are in no mood to just trust the School Board.”
Evelyn Kerr of Castleton also criticized the decision. “I don’t think it is right to allow money to be shifted around” from one category to another in the school budget, she said. “I am not pleased with Mr. Parrish abstaining from his vote” on the Frazier motion.
Tom Junk of Sperryville said, “You had a chance to vote this by category and keep the funds where they should be, and you didn’t do it . . . . This board should be ashamed of themselves. You needed to vote the money by categories to keep it where it should be.”
But several citizens rose to applaud the decision and defend the School Board and its budget. Steve Carroll thanked the supervisors “for the trust you have shown in the School Board.” Henry Gorfein complained that “a lot of misinformation” had been spread about the school budget and said he had seen no evidence that funds had been misappropriated.
John Tole, who spent 10 years on the School Board, said, “There have always been and always will be maintenance problems,” but “not in my wildest imagination do I think the School Board would look at those things and just let them go.” He suggested the two boards work together to solve jointly the maintenance problems.
After the meeting, Supervisor Parrish appeared eager to explain his role, calling this reporter to comment on the meeting. “I had quite a few calls over the weekend and the vast majority were in favor of approving (the budget) by the bottom line,” he said. “I had no strong opinion” on which course to take, he added.
In retrospect, he said, “I think it was probably a mistake that I abstained, but I didn’t know what to do.” He said he thought Welch would vote against rather than with Frazier, sparing Parrish from being the decisive vote. “I was indecisive. I realized I couldn’t do that again” on the second vote, he said.
For a time, he said, “I was adamant” about voting in favor of approval by category, but he changed his mind after a meeting with Superintendent Chappell and Stonewall-Hawthorne school board member Beth Hilscher. “They promised they would find the same amount of money” in budget savings that the supervisors would seek to shift by category funding. “I figured that would solve the problem.”
Williams Tree Service
In other action at its 7 p.m. meeting, the Board of Supervisors delayed final approval of Greg Williams’ special exception required to move his tree and garden operations to the former site of ECow, at U.S. 211 and Route 729, until they see and approve a final site plan and lighting plan.
Most of the supervisors echoed the Planning Commission’s support of Williams’ plan, including Parrish — who asked, however, that the board be able to see that the security lights planned for the rear of the structure (where Williams has said he plans to store most of his heavy equipment) will conform to the county’s lighting ordinance.
Williams promised to have the plans to the board before its June meeting.
James P. Gannon is the editor and publisher of rappvoice.com, where this article first appeared. Rappahannock News staff also contributed to this report.