School budget inspires record crowd

In its final public hearing on the 2013-2014 school budget, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors heard a flood of public opinion, both for and against the school board’s proposed $12.61 million budget, as a record 38 speakers lined up at the microphone Monday night (April 29) at Rappahannock County Elementary School.

The two-hour public forum featured an almost evenly divided split of opinion on the school division’s proposed 3-percent increase over the 2012-2013 budget, with familiar comments and commenters on both sides.

“This county is in a deep time of difficulty,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne district parent Jeff Light, voicing his support of the budget, which proposes to spend $445,932 more than the current year. “It’s a problem money won’t solve – the next generation will.”

Parent and Waterpenny Farm owner Rachel Bynum was the first to raise the issue of teacher salary increases, saying that, if salaries weren’t raised (the budget includes a 3-percent across-the-board increase), Rappahannock wouldn’t be able to hold onto its best and brightest teachers. “I’m willing to work a little harder and prioritize more to make that happen,” Bynum said.

“I am urging, begging, imploring [the supervisors] to adopt this school budget,” said an impassioned Janet Davis. “Kids need the tools and education to compete in a global market . . . We may disagree on how the money should be spent, but boy do we need it!”

“I think the school board could have justified asking for a lot more,” said Wakefield district resident Lisa Schlosser. “This is a very conservative budget of need,” she said, a sentiment echoed by others throughout the forum.

Sperryville resident Mary Katherine Ishee raised the point that pouring money into the school system enhances the rest of the locale by association, maintaining that slashing the school budget is the wrong way to go about saving money. “We should make teaching as popular as possible . . . it is simply my job to pay,” Ishee said, another sentiment echoed by others.

“As responsible citizens, we need to pay,” agreed Stonewall-Hawthorne district’s Gary Light. “It’s not an outrageous budget . . . [and] you rarely get more than you pay for . . . [not passing it] overlooks, if not insults, the work put in by the staff and ignores the improvements made in past years.”

Numerous other speakers throughout the meeting urged to board to remember that “children are our most precious resource” and to adopt the budget as proposed. A good school system could also help attract more young people to the county, noted Rick Kohler of Amissville.

“What’s important is producing the best possible education,” said Flint Hill resident Bill Dietel. “The community has shown you they are prepared to pay . . . it’s not an outrageous budget [and] to fail to pass it isn’t a matter of money, but of morale.”

Numerous other speakers voiced their support of the budget, including those who’ve spoken up at previous budget-season hearings such as Headwaters president Jane Bowling-Wilson, high school teacher Rich Hogan, Hal Hunter and Greg Ludlow, among others.

“I don’t have any kids, but I never fully paid for my own education,” said Henry Gorfein, noting that his school years were spent entirely in public schools. “That’s why I support this school system.”

For the second straight hearing, bus driver Eddie Gore approached the podium holding a large plastic bag filled with rust he said he gotten from the underside of several of the school’s buses (the budget includes increased funds for bus replacements). “We’re hauling the most precious cargo in the world,” said Gore, who said he and his fellow bus drivers were looking out for the safety of the children.

“There is no one here who doesn’t want what’s best for the children,” said Jeffrey Knight of Washington. Knight encouraged the board to spend smarter, advocating the adoption of an enrollment-based staffing plan to govern the number of school employees, noting that the school’s enrollment had dropped 3 percent since 2010.

Knight also said that, according to the most recently available annual state superintendent’s report for 2011-2012 (available on the Virginia Department of Education’s website), Rappahannock has an 8.94-to-1 student-teacher ratio – one of the lowest in the commonwealth. [See Knight’s letter to the editor, along with others, on page 4.]

Hogan disputed that number, saying that, in his experience, the ratio was closer to 18 to 1. Interim superintendent Kathleen Grove said Wednesday that the 2012-2013 ratio had not yet been calculated.

Under the new budget, Knight said, RCPS would spend more than $13,000 per student.

Terry Dixon of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district asked the supervisors not to raise property taxes – the current proposed school and county budgets represent a potential 10-percent rise in the county’s current 61-cent-per-$100 property tax rate. Dixon presented a multi-page petition signed by county residents who he said had the same opinion. “A 10-percent increase is just too much,” said Dixon. “My property taxes have doubled since I moved here . . . It’s to the point where I’m going to be taxed out of my house.”

“Proponents of this budget say any reduction to it is apocalyptic – this is rubbish,” said Washington resident Jim Miller, in one of the most strongly worded comments of the night. “Every budget can be cut,” said Miller, who is among the county’s better-known fiscal conservatives, and who directed the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan. “You [the supervisors] don’t often hear from the people who pay the bills . . . I urge you to say no to this budget, or they [your constituents] will say no to you.”

Jackson district resident Joe Reinboldt asked the supervisors to consider landowners without children in the schools when deciding whether or not to raise property taxes. “What about a break for us? . . .There is a point at which you can only draw so much blood from a turnip.”

Reinboldt encouraged those who use the public school system to “step up” and shoulder the burden of improving it themselves, suggesting that the schools should consider charging students to park their cars on school property. “At some point, enough is enough,” said Reinboldt.

“I am in favor of excellent schools, and we have excellent schools,” said Washington resident Demaris Miller. “I am in favor of paying teachers well, and we do pay them well. It is time for them to receive a raise . . . but we have to make smart decisions. It’s not what you spend, but how you spend it.”

The call for efficiency was a common theme throughout the meeting, even among those who endorsed the budget, such as Amissville resident Ron Makela, once a school board member himself, who expressed his support for both the school staff raise and replacement of the school’s buses – but cautioned the board against being “locked in to an irrelevant mandatory time frame” when replacing the buses.

“We should replace them when we need them,” said Makela. [In a letter to the editor on page 4, Jackson District supervisor Ron Frazier goes into more detail on the same theme.]

“I’m happy as can be to see what our schools are producing,” said school board member Aline Johnson. “But we should try to do better . . . There is no better way to spend our tax dollars. We must not let the kids down – they belong to all of us.”

With the official public hearing now closed – on the school’s portion of the county’s proposed $22.54 million budget for 2013-2014 – the supervisors are expected to vote at their 7 p.m. session this Monday on a final school budget figure.