The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors on Monday voted not to contribute funds for an after-school program for the county public school system proposed by the Headwaters Foundation.
Supervisor Ronald Frazier’s motion not to supply public funds for the enrichment program also received the vote of Board Chairman Roger Welch. Supervisors Mike Biniek and Chris Parrish abstained from voting. Supervisor Bryant Lee was absent.
“I’m personally concerned about a proposal to ask for public funds for a private program held in a publicly owned building. There would be two public bodies [the supervisors and the Board of Education] involved with no control of the program or the employees,” Frazier said.
Headwaters had proposed starting an after-school program in fall 2011 that would offer instruction in arts and crafts, gardening, agriculture and natural resources, gardening, family and consumer science, forestry and nutrition. Students could also receive homework help and play games indoors and outdoors during the 3:15 to 6 p.m. time they would be at Rappahannock Elementary School.
There would be a paid part-time executive director of the program and both paid and volunteer staff. Some of the programming and staff involvement would come from Virginia Cooperative Extension. High school students would be sought to act as volunteer teen mentors and to help with activities.
An advisory board conducted two surveys — one of elementary school students and their parents on whether they would participate in such a program, the other of high school students on whether they would be willing to volunteer — and got more than 300 responses in support.
The county government was asked to provide $30,000 in seed money to help get the program off the ground the first year and continue to provide financial support for the next two years on a declining scale. Users of the program would also be assessed a fee. Headwaters also planned to seek grant support.
Committing public funds to the venture and questions about accountability and the program’s budget weighed heavily in the discussion at Monday’s regular monthly supervisors’ meeting.
The matter first came before the supervisors at their November meeting, and was on the “old business” portion of Monday’s agenda. Headwaters provided a draft budget for the first year of operation. The draft projected a $73,197 budget for the last half of 2011 and expenses totaling $152,167 for calendar year 2012. The proposed budget showed a $30,000 contribution from the county in 2011 and $20,000 in 2012. The two contributions totaling $50,000 would have fallen within the same fiscal year of the county government.
“My impression was that we were not going to vote on it today (Monday),” said Supervisor Parrish. “I didn’t have enough information to make a good vote. We still had unresolved questions,” he said in explaining his decision to abstain. “We’re talking about a program that was not going to start until next fall. I thought we had plenty of time to make a decision. If the motion was to table it for a month I would have seconded it.”
Tom Junk of Sperryville was critical of the two board members who abstained.
“You should be able to make a decision. You need to do it for your constituents,” he said during the public portion of the meeting Monday.
“These two gentlemen wanted more information,” Board Chairman Welch responded.
Biniek said that he thought Headwaters “needs to look at the overall program” again.
He told the Rappahannock News later about his abstention that “I think it’s a good program. I didn’t want to kill it in the water. But the county didn’t have that kind of money to put towards it. I wanted to give an opportunity for them [Headwaters] to think it over and come back with a request for a much lower amount.”
Frazier said, “I think the cost is prohibitive. We are not able under the current fiscal restraints to participate in the program. I’m not opposed to the program. I’m opposed to public funding” of it.
The funding aspect also concerned Welch. County support of the program “may not be economically viable” at a time when less help from the federal and state governments is expected. “I just don’t think we can afford it,” he said in seconding Frazier’s motion.
Commonwealth Attorney Peter Luke told the board during its discussion that the county was being asked, in effect, for a donation to the after-school program.
“Once you donate you have no strings attached” on how the money is used by the entity receiving the donation. “They can use that money to hire an executive and other staff,” Luke said. If a problem arises there can be a question of “who has the authority to correct the problem.”
Flint Hill resident James Gannon said Headwaters is “well-intended and this may be a good program” but he urged the supervisors to consider the financial obligation being asked of it. He said the request “raises issues I hope you will consider” and that he felt that “there has been reluctance by Headwaters to answer these questions.”
He termed the after-school program “day care,” which is “not the responsibility of the public schools. Adding it has possible long-range consequences. It would be a significant expansion of the schools’ mission and may establish a new entitlement.”
He said the program would be in competition with the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC) in Washington.
Roger Cordani, a resident of the Wakefield district, said he thought it “unwise to start a new program in the current economy” and raising funds to sustain it could be difficult.
Headwaters Executive Director Toni Egger said during the meeting that “CCLC doesn’t see us as competition” and that the after-school program envisioned “is an enrichment program, not a day care. These classes are not offered at the school at the present time.”
She told the News later that “obviously all of us are disappointed” by the supervisors’ vote. “We saw it as a win-win. The county really doesn’t have recreational programs” for children. “There is so little for our kids during after-school hours unless they’re involved with sports. It is disappointing to hear comments like ‘it would serve only a handful of kids.’
“I was disappointed that in all of the discussion today and on Rappnet [a local email discussion group], the comments never really discussed the program,” Egger said. “It never got past, ‘We don’t have any money.’ To say that it was creating an entitlement was an enormous leap to make.”
Egger did say “had we to do it again we would have been more careful about the budget,” but she said “how much of the staff would be volunteer” is an unknown. “We like to think that people would volunteer.”
The Headwaters board will discuss it when it meets next week, Egger said, but the after-school program’s immediate future looks doubtful.
“It is more expensive than anything we have going and I don’t see how in the normal course of fundraising that we can get the program going in September unless we have some angel step in,” she said.
In other business, the board received a $20,000 contribution from the Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance to use for farmland preservation.
It also received notification from the state that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated Rappahannock one of 59 counties and the city of Suffolk as natural disaster area due to drought and excessive heat earlier this year. The designation means affected farmers are eligible for low-interest loans.
County Administrator John McCarthy said he will have a resolution for board action at the January meeting on creating an “open space” category in establishing land-use property tax assessments currently available only to agricultural, horticultural and forestal uses. Real estate devoted to open space would have to be a minimum of 200 acres under the draft resolution being prepared.
McCarthy also told the board that he anticipated that there would be some changes in boundaries in Rappahannock County under redistricting as a result of the 2010 Census “but not a great deal.” He said the Census showed “modest population growth” in the county and that it is “grayer with a higher net income.”
He said that the county should be receiving its census data in February and that redistricting should be completed in time for elections next November.
The board also received a report from the Rappahannock County Visitors Center showing 172 visitors stopped by the center in November during the four weekends that month. There were 336 visits in October.