Supervisors hear pleas for full funding of school budget

Less than a week remains before the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors must tell the School Board what amount of funding the school system will receive for 2019-20.

As that May 1 deadline approaches, nearly a dozen people took advantage of a final opportunity Monday night to speak out and urge the Board of Supervisors to give more money for schools in the coming year.

Recently the School Board presented a budget proposal to the Supervisors that requests $1.4 million in additional local funding above the $14.9 million the county is providing this year. The additional funding is necessary to pay for five budget priorities set by the School Board.

Those priorities include money for 3 percent pay increases for teachers, a step increase for teachers, a 3 percent increase for all other staff, a raise and new salary scale for bus drivers, money for five security officers at the county’s elementary schools and funds to create a Career and Technical Education counselor.

Following a recent joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors, the School Board met again last week to consider their options should the Supervisors not provide the additional funding.

The School Board decided that if no additional funds were provided, it is prepared to eliminate 26 positions in the school system to provide the needed money to fund their five priorities. Six positions would be eliminated through attrition, the other 20 through a Reduction In Force.

All but two of the speakers Monday night urged the Supervisors to fully fund the proposed school budget.

Lezley Wilson asked the Supervisors repeatedly to “prove her wrong,” that her fears that money for teacher raises, higher pay for bus drivers and money for security officers wouldn’t be forthcoming.

Kelly Rutherford spoke of the private investments being made in the county in business and housing. He said approval by the citizens of the middle school bond referendum last year shows the sentiment of the citizens – that they want the school board’s priorities funded. He said people would have to see that happen before they would settle in Pulaski County.

Angie Clevinger said she had been away from meetings of the Board of Supervisors for about five years.

“Nothing has changed,” she noted. “The school system is still having to come and beg for money.”

“Good schools are a win-win for everybody,” Clevinger said. “They attract industries and families to the area.”

Not providing sufficient funding, she said, will mean no matter how many industries move to the county, their employees will settle elsewhere, where schools receive adequate funding.

Mike Price warned that if the Board of Supervisors does not fully fund the School Board’s request, it would have ripple effects across the county’s educational system.

Price told supervisors that “if you are in education today, you are now considered a counselor, disciplinarian, advisor, parent, manager, caregiver, etc. The roles are numerous.”

“Yet these kids make such progress in our care,” Price said. “Funding the budget will allow us to continue to service the ever-increasing needs of our students.”

Kay Thompson spoke of the need for the School Board, Board of Supervisors and the private sector to work together to make investments in education as an investment in our future.

Nancy Barrett said she and her husband both work at Virginia Tech, and told supervisors the enrollment at Tech in the next five to seven years would increase “exponentially.”

She said people who work at Tech want wonderful homes in scenic places.

“Pulaski County is one of the most scenic places I’ve seen,” Barrett said, noting she is from the Midwest.

“We need to make sure we are spending money appropriately for education,” she said. “People at Virginia Tech would love to move here, but we’ve got to keep up with Blacksburg and Christiansburg and offer wonderful amenities and great schools.”

Walt Viars noted he had worked previously for 15 years in cost analysis.  “That’s better known as cost cutting,” Viars said.

He said what concerns him is how money is spent once the school system gets it. Viars said he voted for the new middle school, but he had seen some “stupid things going on” in county schools. He wonders how many “stupid” mistakes will be made in construction and design of the new middle school.

Brittany Williams, a teacher, said she thinks every day “this could be the day I have to give up my life to save my 22 students. This could be the day it could happen here.”

She says she knows one resource officer in a school can’t stop everything that could happen, but it would, she said, add to security and make teachers and students feel safer.

E.W. Harless mentioned that no one speaking during Monday’s meeting had said who would pay for the additional money sought by the School Board.

“The only one way is through taxes,” he said.

Harless said taxpayers had taken a big hit after approval of the middle school bond issue, which he said he had voted for.

The school system has been “mis-managed for a long time,” Harless said.

“Who else – other than taxpayers – is going to sacrifice [for the additional funding],” Harless asked?

“The school superintendent just got a new contract. Did he sacrifice,” asked Harless.

“We can’t compete with Montgomery County and Blacksburg,” Harless said. “I hear Giles County and Bland County give more for schools than Pulaski County. What kind of debt service do they have? This county pays $6 million in debt service each year on schools, which is part of education.”

Harless continued that he agrees everyone should get a raise, but stated, “This has to stop somewhere. The School Board is going to have to fix its own problems and quit coming to the taxpayers every time.”

School Board Chairman Tim Hurst said he believes people should be paid on their performance, and that taxpayers deserve a good return on their investment.

Hurst said people speaking out for school funding are advocating for money just to keep the school system “average.”

Hurst said the goal of the school budget was to stay average on salaries.

“That’s a heck of a goal,” Hurst said.

He said the school system established a new pay scale in 2016 that brought Pulaski County up to average with Radford, Giles, Bland, Floyd, Wythe and Carroll.

“I’m not talking about Montgomery County, but we do lose people to Montgomery County,” he said.

Speaking for nearly 20 minutes, often emotionally, Hurst offered several examples of how Pulaski County students had excelled above average performance with “accomplishments that are nothing short of remarkable.”

“There’s nothing average about Pulaski County Schools,” Hurst stated.

Supervisors Chairman Andy McCready responded to two of the speakers.

He told Clevinger that one thing that hasn’t changed in the five years she has been away from board meetings is the fact the Board of Supervisors has continued to provide increased local funding for schools in each of those five years.

To Wilson, McCready noted the county’s final budget hasn’t been completed. He noted he had worked on seven budgets and school funding had increased in all of them.

“I would hate to break that record,” McCready said, signaling the supervisors may in the end provide at least a portion of the $1.4 million additional funds sought by the School Board.

“If you look over the long history of Pulaski County, you’ve seen years of level local funding and one year almost $1 million was taken from the school funds. But this board and the previous board has provided increased local funding every year,” McCready said.

McCready noted that the county cannot control state funding, and noted he knows how the state has treated school divisions – especially those in rural areas – and the unfair burden that has been placed on those school divisions with declining enrollment.

The Board of Supervisors will hold another budget work session Monday night, at which time they may disclose their funding decision for education for the 2019-20 school year.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot

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