A last-second joint work session with members of the Rappahannock County School Board and Board of Supervisors was planned at the end of Monday night’s (April 30) public hearing on the county’s proposed $22.1 million fiscal-year 2013 budget – after Piedmont supervisor Ron Frazier insisted that both boards address school budget-related concerns raised by members of the public.
So, tonight at 7 p.m. at the courthouse, board members will roll up their sleeves and review the $12.4 million school budget line by line; it is scheduled for action by the supervisors at their next regular meeting Monday (May 7) at 2 p.m.
Tonight’s work session is open to the public, but there will be no public comment period.
“When we look at non-mandated costs, I think we should do everything that we can do to – as citizens, as taxpayers, as parents, as members of this body – to look at shaving those costs. And I don’t think we have done that yet,” Frazier said at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing. He reminded the board that because Rappahannock County’s composite index is .8, the county is obligated to pay 80 percent of government-mandated costs (the state pays the other 20 percent) – and 100 percent of non-mandated costs.
Last year, when the school presented a level-funded budget for the fourth straight year, only two members of the public spoke at the budget hearing, which lasted less than 35 minutes. This year – with the school division requesting an additional $559,854 from the county budget, including a 3-percent across-the-board salary raise for school employees – nearly 50 county residents, teachers, taxpayers, parents and grandparents attended Monday’s hearing, 25 of whom stood before the supervisors in the high school auditorium to speak.
Since about 65 percent of the $22.1 million proposed county budget goes into funding school costs, increased school funding means for the first time in five years the real estate tax will increase (by 5 cents per $100 of assessed value, to 63 cents, which is an 8.6-percent increase). The state-controlled mandated cost increase of $392,939 for contributions to the Virginia Retirement System for teachers, for example, is a cost the county can’t control and is obligated to finance.
However, proposed increases mentioned at the hearing, including a planned 3-percent raise for teachers ($153,070), the lease-purchase of four new buses ($71,492 annually for four years) and the purchase of rollerblades with helmets and pads ($5,804) – are costs that the county has the power to approve or reject. While there are other proposed cost increases, those three were most referenced by Monday night’s speakers.
“In this economy, when people like myself are out here struggling, I don’t think we should be expected to pay for another bus, when the older one works just fine – and I don’t know what this is about roller skates,” said Joe Reinboldt, a Jackson district resident. In raising his five children, of whom four are home-schooled, Reinboldt said he taught them early on the meaning of the word “no.” “I think this is a teaching moment for you guys, for the board. Teach everybody what ‘no’ means. Be the adults and tell the school, ‘No, the money’s not there.’ That’s the same thing I tell my children.”
Others asked the supervisors to “be the adults you want our schoolchildren to grow up to be” by saying “Yes.”
Margaret Lee, who has taught at the Rappahannock County Elementary School for more than 20 years and will retire at the end of the next school year, expressed frustration at having to publicly justify, each year, why she and her colleagues deserve to keep their benefits and receive a long-awaited raise.
“Teachers have worked hard for the last four years with no raise,” Lee said, adding that though the teachers have received great evaluations from administrators, that doesn’t earn them a raise as it would in most jobs. “Kids spend about half of their waking hours Monday through Friday in our care. We are entrusted with educating the county’s most precious asset: our future. And yet we must come here and annually plead for much-deserved compensation. Something is terribly wrong with that.”
Former Virginia teacher and Hampton district resident Demaris Miller does not support the school budget increase.
“This would be a very bad time to make an increase in taxes – especially since many of you supervisors know that there are increases in the future that aren’t in the school budget this year, that aren’t in the county budget this year,” Miller said, noting the future expenses of the regional jail. “So we’re going to be doing the same thing next year, and then it may be absolutely necessary to have an increase. But right now, if you show the kind of guts and judgement that I know you’re capable of, you will say ‘no’ to any increases this year.”
Nancy Rivenburg, who’s family has been in the county for more 65 years, described herself as a concerned grandparent of a student in the high school.
“I encouraged my daughter and her family to move to Rappahannock County to raise my grandchildren – and I have to say today, that is a decision I deeply regret,” Rivenburg said, noting that the security of her son was jeopardized by a man entering the high school without proper procedure. “As taxpayers, my daughter, her husband and myself are here to protest any raises or benefit increases for the administrators of Rappahannock County High School. We feel that the current administration is not dealing fairly and truthfully with some students and parents of Rappahannock, and we as some of those taxpayers want to be heard. This administration works for us and every other taxpayer in this county, and we feel pay raises cannot be justified with poor performance.”
After multiple parents and residents addressed disgust with security at the school, ineffective administration and an unhealthy learning environment for students at the public schools, John Diley rose to address the board.
“As I sat here listening tonight to all of the problems and failures and security breaches and just abysmal performance of our public school system, I kind of wondered, ‘Where did my daughter graduate from last June?’ ” Diley said. “I mean, I remember her starting in kindergarten and going all the way through the school system. She graduated, she went on to college, she’s taking math courses, biology, macro-biology. She’s flourishing. She’s doing well – and I thought she graduated from this school system. But to listen to these folks tonight, I’m really wondering where in fact she did graduate from.”
Diley referred back to 2008, when the board of supervisors was faced with producing a county budget in the context of a Wall Street collapse and an economy in a downward spiral with no end in sight.
“Amidst all that, you had to come up with a budget, and we had some very well-deserving county employees that should’ve gotten raises back then, and certainly we would’ve liked to have given them raises, but the money just wasn’t there – and they haven’t had raises since,” Diley said. “This year we’re looking at a little better picture: We’ve had 25 consecutive months of private-sector job growth, the stock market is back up over 13,000 again . . . it seems like the economy’s a lot better off now than it was back then.”
Gary Light of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district acknowledged that there are people out there hurting from the current economic state, but noted that many of those people stand to gain the most from the supervisors approving the school budget.
“We could quibble about individual items in the budget, and I think you and [Superintendent] Dr. [Alridge] Boone and everybody should be open to specific suggestions for improvement, and specific recommendations for things that might be in need of change in the budget,” Light said. “But when it comes to the sound bites and the general political remarks about the budget, I think they really don’t have a proper place here – and personally would like to say that you’ve been saying ‘no’ for four years already, I think you’ve gotten a lot of practice with that, you’ve shown you can do it, and it’s time to say ‘Yes,’ or at least ‘Yes, with some changes.’”
At the close of the public hearing, Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish and Frazier said that they did not support the purchase of four new buses outlined in the proposed school budget, especially since there wasn’t even a guarantee that the new buses would be any safer. Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee pointed out that in his nearly 30 years on the school board and board of supervisors, there’s “never been a good year for a tax increase” – but with the state-controlled mandates calling for more than $400,000 in local funding from the county, it’s something that’s got to be done whether we like it or not.