Education A Priority

Published 4:07 pm Thursday, April 19, 2012

PRINCE EDWARD -There was a consistent theme from those attending Tuesday night's public hearing: raise my taxes to help education.

“We don't have anybody in the schools,” Martha Dorrill, the wife of retired Longwood University President William Dorrill, offered. “No grandchildren, no children, we're not working there. And I'm coming here to say gentlemen and ladies, raise our taxes if necessary…Education is probably the most important thing you could do for the future, for the present, for everything we value in this community.”

She also added, “There's one way to close your schools and that's to lock the door. And the other way is just to let 'em get a little bit less and a little bit less so those parents who come to the college say, 'I better live in Midlothian or maybe I'll go over in Buckingham' and before you know it, the schools will be gone just as surely if you lock the door and there's a sort of a tipping point in which the parents say 'I don't think I'll put my kids in that school. And if I can't afford to go to a private school, I'll go elsewhere.'”

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County Supervisors, should they choose to raise the personal property and real estate tax rates, would have to go back to formula in the budget process. Essentially, the board would have to re-advertise a budget that included a tax rate higher than the current amount.

Boards can decrease an advertised tax rate in approving a budget, but not increase it.

Still, with public education the focal point, one-by-one speaker after speaker resonated the increase the taxes message for education in the mostly-filled meeting room. Though the public hearing combined both the county and school budgets, most of the comments focused on the schools and school funding.

“I've lived in this county since 1974,” offered retired Prince Edward teacher Mary Reed, “And I just want to voice my displeasure with…the cuts in this budget. I cannot believe it's happening and it pains me.”

She later noted, “I'm willing to pay for what I want and I want education in Prince Edward County. If we need to increase our taxes-I look at the Farmville Herald and we…have the lowest real estate tax rate of all the surrounding counties and many of them are much poorer than we are. And it just disgusts me that this is happening.”

Ms. Reed said she is willing to pay more taxes “if it will support our school.”

School Matters

County school officials, saddled with deep state cuts, declining enrollment over recent years, and a change in the state's composite index, are looking at funding hefty cuts for the coming year. The proposed County budget that has a bottom line of the same local contribution as last year ($8,106,652), essentially gives the school over $416,000 more in available operating funds. It includes monies the board had for a one-time employee bonus in last year's budget as well as the difference resulting from a reduction in debt service.)

School officials are faced with a net budget shortfall of $1,967,623 when measured with the governor's proposed budget and an Average Daily Membership (ADM) of 2,270 students and the school board submitted a budget totaling $26,132,027 that seeks local operating funds totaling $8,130,379 in addition to $572,397 in debt service funds. (The food service budget, which is separate and self-sufficient, was also recommended with no change from the previous year, or $1,087,070.) But they are also seeking $785,334 more in local funding while holding to a contingency list of priority ranked cuts.

A list of Level I reductions built into the schools request total $1,182,289 includes and factors a range of cuts, including positions and programs.

Even with the school's proposed Level I cuts, it would still leave them some $785,334 short, which leads to a list of Level II prioritized list that factors $787,310 more in cut options.

That list includes possibly cutting a division gifted resource teacher ($64,980), a position that has been advertised this year but not filled; middle school special education teacher ($64,980); transferring middle school teacher to be funded with grant monies ($64,980); elementary computer teacher ($64,980), shifting the individual to a currently vacant ITRT position at the elementary school and possibly being able to help with the computers and teachers and support for students while covering the ITRT position; high school German teaching position ($64,980); an additional elementary teaching position ($64,980), which could not be in first-third grades to maintain classroom ratios tied to state funding; combining the agriculture/horticulture position ($64,980); reducing an art teacher position at the high school to half-time ($32,490); a band teacher position ($64,980) – so there would be one teacher to cover both the middle and high schools; and eliminating the proposed one percent salary increase.

County Budget

While specific figures and funding could change in the final budget with the General Assembly's budget jury still out, the County's advertised budget factors $50 million in total County operations and totals $42,062,514 when deducting transfers between funds.

Board of Supervisors Chairman William “Buckie” Fore outlined that the board believes that the consolidated public hearing is good for the citizens “so that you, the citizens, can correlate the funding for the schools with the overall county budget and the setting of the tax rates to raise the funds needed to operate the county.”

He also noted, the proposed budget includes: no increase in county tax rates for the coming year, anticipates an increase in local tax revenues of approximately $454,000, which is mainly due to the increase in number and value of motor vehicles in the county; a 3.6 percent cost of living increase for county employees, mirroring Social Security's COLA increase in January and would be the first increase for workers since 2007; level or decreased funding for most county departments, constitutional offices and county emergency services agencies; $8,106,652 of local funds for the schools; the $416,000 increase in operating funds for the schools will come from the general fund balance, it was noted, in order to balance the proposed budget.

“If the citizens of Prince Edward County ask the Board to increase expenditures in the proposed budget, it will require additional resources, which, of course, will mean a tax increase or cuts to the other existing programs and services,” Fore commented.

The Chairman would also cite that the budget process has been “extremely complicated due to the failure of the Virginia General Assembly to adopt a state budget in a timely fashion.” Fore also emphasized that the County “has not and is not cutting funds for our schools” and that “any shortfall that the schools are anticipating is due to the state's and not the county's failure to adequately fund public education.”

He urged “each of you” to contact State Senator Tom Garrett and Delegate James Edmunds to express “your concern and, quite frankly, your outrage.”

Speaking during the hearing, Carolyn DeWolfe would later offer that “blaming it on the state, it may be correct in some regard, but it doesn't get the job done and we need to have the schools funded adequately so that we're not cutting programs that are really a vital part of the program.”

She would also add, “We've put too much blood, sweat and tears into this school system to allow it to go downhill.”

School Matters

Heather Edwards, who teaches French at Longwood, cited the importance of the Spanish program at the elementary school. (The program, a basic introduction to the language, is slated by the school board to be cut pending funding.) The study of a foreign language, she cited, has been proven to increase standardized test scores.

“Not to mention the added benefit of reminding our children that it is OK, even beautiful and right to sound different, to look different and act a bit differently than others,” Ms. Edwards said. “They are doomed as global citizens if they don't learn this lesson early.”

She also noted, “My 12-year-old daughter, who's an avid reader, faithfully reads the Farmville Herald twice a week every week. Imagine her dismay at reading about the cost of planning and building this storied convention center (the planned Granite Falls hotel conference and training center project). And, imagine her surprise as she read the justification for this enormous expenditure that the current road presents a clear and present danger to students. She is picked up and dropped off every day by us and knows, as do most of us in this room, that this justification is absolute nonsense.”

The access road, Ms. Edwards would add, that they are building “has nothing to do with what our children need but rather with what you want.”

“My second point is related because I am aware of the argument that a convention center would bring in tax revenue,” she said. “But perhaps you are blissfully unaware of the number of colleagues with children who work at Longwood and Hampden-Sydney, at the Centra hospital and other industries who choose not to live in Prince Edward County precisely because of the state of our schools. These families would own real estate in our county, would buy goods and services in our county, would be leaders in our community if only they felt this community were one which values education. These families are in addition to those who remain in the county but send their children elsewhere.”

Good families, she stated, are sending their children to other county schools.

“Children who are identified as gifted, who are academically high achievers with parents who want to be involved, are leaving our schools in droves,” she said. “These families would be happy to pay a higher tax rate if it meant their kids education would be valued. You're trading the support of real people for the dream that a corporation will come and fix our financial problems.”

Rev. Chris Cunningham, speaking for himself and not his church, offered that his son graduated from the County's school system and is a rising senior at VCU.

“I am another one of your citizens who is more than willing to pay increased taxes, particularly to support economic development through our public schools,” he said. “I don't think we need extra income for a water and sewer project, I don't think it's in the board's or the county's best interest to provide extra income for economic development through hotels, but economic development through schools.”

The tier one cuts the school board is looking at is $1.18 million, Rev. Cunningham reminded the board. He urged them to reconsider, to look seriously at increasing the tax rate and to restore the $1.18 million to eliminate the cuts that the school board is proposing.

More Comments

“We need to feel connected to each other,” offered Barbara Arieti. “That's what a community is. My own children have graduated from the Prince Edward School system, but that hasn't stopped me at all from caring deeply for the welfare of all of the students. And that would be true whether or not I worked there and I plan to come up here and bother you guys…when I retire and I think (fellow teacher) Mrs. (Teri) Kidd will too next year when she's retired. Thinking that we are collectively responsible for each other is a real game-changer…Once we think in those terms, like a real community, then we see the need to invest in the people who are our future.”

While she offered that she doesn't like paying taxes, she suggested that they must “look upon on a tax increase not as throwing money away, but as an investment in our collective future-the education of our children.”

Ms. Kidd, would later offer, “Yes, the state really dropped the ball-no one's gonna argue with that. Sadly, where did the ball land? Right here and you are the board that has to deal with it.”

She assessed that it is “not fair, but here it is.” She added, “So I refuse to believe that this board would allow those horrific cuts to education that would probably be permanent. I refuse to believe that you will not consider every available means. I refuse to believe that because you have done so much better than the law requires in the past and I have every belief that you will continue to do what needs to be done to keep our schools strong, to keep Prince Edward proud.”

Another Issue

Patty Pugh highlighted the efforts of the local library, offering that it's a “vital place.” She also cited computer usage of students after school, that the system is slow and they need to increase power. In addition, she noted that they are getting extra books for students to use on electronic devices (citing the use of the Kindle).

“…I have heard people say, well some of those teenagers that are in there are using the computers to play games,” Ms. Pugh said. “And I say fine. They are in a safe place. They are not out there joining a gang. They are learning how to use skills that they will use all their life and they are doing a good thing. They are not…trying to get into any mischief or any trouble.”

Lowell Frye also noted that they need to fund the library and the schools, suggesting passage of a tax increase sufficient to fund the schools and the other things needful at appropriate levels.

“If the General Assembly finally gets its act together and does the right thing, perhaps that tax increase can be rolled back,” he said, “but it seems to me that it would be incumbent on us not to blame the loss of that money on the state when we have it in our own power to say we don't want to do it, but we will raise the taxes in order to cover the cost…”

Final Thoughts

Supervisors took no action on the budget and are scheduled to meet on Tuesday, April 24 beginning at 3 p.m. and again on April 26, where they could consider budget action.