By MIKE WILLIAMS
“We’re going to change our tone right here.”
That was how Lezley Wilson, a second grade teacher at Pulaski Elementary and Vice President of the Pulaski County Education Association began her comments to the Board of Supervisors on Monday night.
Wilson addressed the board to ask that the supervisors allocate the money necessary for 7 percent raises for school employees, as proposed by Governor Glenn Youngkin and both houses of the General Assembly.
However, unlike comments by some in prior meetings, Wilson presented a different tone in her remarks – one that sought to give credit where it is due, and not automatically assuming the worst.
Noting she was representing the employees of the “second largest employer in Pulaski County,” Wilson told the supervisors and County Administrator Jonathan Sweet that, “You are right. This is a different board. I want to highlight some of your accomplishments.”
She thanked both Supervisors Chairman Laura Walters and County Administrator Jonathan Sweet for taking the time to meet with her and PCEA President Candy Castelluccio. A first in her tenure, Wilson said.
She noted they had talked at length about changes to the school system’s Capital Improvement Project budget.
“We want citizens to know that at no additional cost to Pulaski County taxpayers, you have developed additional funding streams for the capital improvement budget to include revenue from the cigarette ta and from retiring school debt service obligations,” Wilson stated.
“This has allowed our students to eat meals prepared with new, more efficient kitchen equipment and learn in buildings where repair or replacing roofs and other capital equipment is not delayed by needing to secure funding. Our students are better protected by the security upgrades to buildings made possible with this funding strategy and rising buses that are being upgraded more quickly,” Wilson continued.
Wilson also commended the board for “ensuring that the coordinated and difficult decisions made by leaders and public safety officers err on the side of safety for school operations.”
“Whether it be decisions affecting transportation routes, closing schools, conducting community training and drills or other disruptions to routines, consideration for protecting our children is the highest priority,” she said.
“We all wish that we lived in a time where risk of violence from within or outside the school community wasn’t a daily concern, but sadly, we don’t. Proactively this board stepped up and through the Sheriff’s Office assigns a dedicated, armed, and trained resource officer in every Pulaski County school every day. This is certainly a case of we wish you didn’t have to … but we are so thankful you do.
“So, as I said, you are right. We have a lot of things to celebrate in Pulaski with respect to support and funding for public education infrastructure. We appreciate the respect towards teachers this board expressed at your last meeting,” Wilson said.
Wilson then made her request for the funding for the school system’s operational budget so as to provide school employees with the 7 percent pay increases.
She closed her remarks by noting how pleased she is that the county and school system have scheduled a meeting later in the week. According to Walters, School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers, School Board Chairman Becki Cox and Sweet were to meet.
“We want to continue to work positively with both boards as we work together to provide the best education for our students,” Wilson said.
In her remarks, Catelluccio said the children of the county are worth a 7 percent raise.
She noted that neither the school system or the PCEA came up with the 7 percent figure. “We are advocating for what Gov. Youngkin and the General Assembly have proposed,” she said, adding that 5 percent of the raise was decided and voted on last year as part of a two-year effort to get Virginia’s teacher pay closer to the national average.
She said the additional 2 percent had been proposed by Youngkin and is in both the House’s and Senate’s proposed budgets.
She stressed that if Pulaski County does not provide the required matching local money, we won’t receive the state money earmarked for raises.
Leaving taxpayer money on the table is not what anyone wants to see happen, she said.
Castelluccio also – “speaking for all the PCEA members and employees of the school system” thanked the supervisors for what they have done for the students and staff of the school system.
“We look forward to having more to celebrate with you all in the near future,” she said.
Another teacher spoke about this being the first year she is nervous about being able to pay all her bills.
Another teacher told the supervisors everyone she works with loves their jobs. She asked the supervisors to look over all the numbers and all the comparisons. “We don’t teach in Northern Virginia, but we are expected to be as good as those teachers,” she said.
E.W. Harless asked a hypothetical question about what would happen if the supervisors provide the additional money this year, but the state cuts its appropriation next year. Would the county be responsible for all the money for higher pay?
Sweet explained that the biggest threat to the county in the area of state funding for education is Average Daily Membership.
“That’s what drives funding from the state to the localities,” Sweet said. “If our ADM drops then so does our state funding. That’s something we really want to keep our eye on – how do we maintain enrollment. How do we keep students choosing Pulaski County Public Schools over home school, private school, over other jurisdictions. That’s the major threat.”
Sweet added that all the bad things happening around the world today matter and affect the economy, which in turn affects the state revenues and dictates what the state is able to fund for education.
“Sustainability is paramount in decision making,” Sweet said. “If you can fund the raise this year, it doesn’t mean that you can fund it next year. You need to make sure any decisions made on funding are sustainable over the longterm because these raises are compounding.”
Harless responded by saying Pulaski County has excellent teachers, but that this county cannot keep up with Montgomery County.
“We just can’t do it. There’s just no way,” he said.
“I’ve had to go back to eating baloney sandwiches myself, things have been that tough for everybody. I just want to make sure we don’t get in too deep. Do what you can with what you got,” Harless said.
Sarah Polcha noted that people come to the Pulaski County “because we make it a great place. Teachers come to the county because it’s a great place to live and a great place to teach.”
“We’re not competing against Montgomery, Radford and Wythe, we’re competing against Henrico, Chesterfield, Loudoun and Fairfax, she said, noting Radford University is graduating five special education teachers this year. “I need seven right now,” she said.
Polcha said what needs to be looked at is what is the economic impact of good teachers coming into the county.
“We are a good, good education system, but we can’t sustain if our teachers are leaving because they can’t sustain,” she said.
“I would ask you to consider that by creating a strong education system starting in Pre-K all the way to post grad, you’re laying the foundation for your economic development. Companies will not come here if you have sub-par teachers.
“Let’s make the investment in the county and the children. Let’s move forward positively to find a way to solve this so we can keep our teachers and keep our kids in the county,” Polcha said.
In other public comments, Pastor Gary Hash addressed the board about his concerns over comments made during last November’s election.
“This has been on my heart for some time. Last year we had an incredibly unfortunate experience,” began Hash, recounting the race between his wife, Collette and incumbent Jeff Reeves for the Robinson District seat on the Board of Supervisors.
“We experienced nothing more than a smear campaign, launched on social media,” Hash charged. “It involved a number of misrepresentations, distortions and just flat out lies.”
He said in the campaign the narrative was created that he and his wife were socialists, communists and that narrative continued on up to the day of the election.
Hash said he has to watch how he responded to what happened because he and his wife represent a ministry and business, and his children and grandchildren live here.
He said social media has this “aura” and gives the impression that you can say what you want without repercussions.
“That’s not true,” Hash said. “There is such a thing as slander.”
“That’s what my wife experienced. On the day of the election, we had people shouting at us all day long, calling us communists, socialists,” he continued.
“There were people on the board who leveraged influence on that,” Hash charged, adding election day last year culminated in a man coming up to him and threatening to assault him at the polls.
Angie Clevinger asked the board to look into ways – possibly a sign – that would aid drivers in exiting the middle school property on Route 11.
Chairman Laura Walters responded that the county has discussed repeatedly with VDOT about proposals to eliminate the problem. The proposals, Walters said, are getting more expensive by the minute and VDOT does not have money yet for them.
“Maybe a sign will help,” Clevinger suggested, and Walters agreed.
Massie Supervisor Mike Mooney noted that school bus drivers have the same concerns.
“We’ve got a plan, but it could be a while before we can make it happen,” Mooney said. “We need some change there, I agree.”