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INDEPENDENCE – Give the schools the money they need in the 2011-12 budget, many schools proponents told the Grayson supervisors in a marathon public hearing last Wednesday
More than two dozen citizens spoke for more than two hours at public hearing on the proposed Grayson County Public Schools budget.
With more than 70 people in attendance, many of the speakers asked the board to fully fund the $5.56 million schools request, citing lack of raises, aging buildings and outdated resources as the primary reasons the funding was needed.
There were teachers, such as Janet Mullins who has worked in the school system for 20 years.
“These are my people,” Mullins said referring to the crowd that had overflowed the courtroom on the top floor of the Grayson County Courthouse. “I’m here today to stand up for them.”
Mullins pleaded with the board that if they wanted industry and money to come to Grayson, they need to have a school system that is thriving and strong, noting that right now the school system is broken and “in need of a band-aid.”
Mullins spoke about Grayson being ranked “dead last” in terms of salaries for its teachers and that three years ago pay was frozen for all employees.
“We’re tired of it, I’m not a babysitter, I’m a teacher,” she told the board. “We deserve better. We deserve our supervisors to stand up for us and make us the best school system in the state.”
Mullins talked about holes in the school building that were duct taped over to keep the bees out and asked the county to “stand up” for its school system.
Administrators also spoke, such as Susie Funk who works as the county’s elementary education supervisor who asked the board to not let the education for the children of Grayson County suffer and said, “I want Grayson County children to have the very best… they deserve it because they are the best children that you will find anywhere.”
Administrators and teachers asked the board to prioritize their funding and put the students of Grayson County – the future leaders of the county — at the top of their list.
Others spoke about the outdated equipment and materials, such as Elizabeth Brown, principal at Fries Middle School.
Brown said her students are expected to compete with other students not only in the state, but across the globe as well.
With the current resources that is a large task, she explained.
Brown noted she graduated from high school, college and began working in the education sector during the 1980s — and noted that much of the resources in the school’s library date from back then.
“What are our students missing,” she questioned. “What’s happened since 1980?”
Brown noted the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the election of the country’s first African American President and Hurricane Katrina.
“How can our students keep up with the trends without our updated books,” she asked.
Independence Elementary School Principal Susan Mitchell showed the board ceiling tiles that were stained from a leaking roof.
“We have leaks,” she said, noting that one such leak comes in over the school’s technology hub where the main server is.
Mitchell explained the embarrassment of having trash cans in the hallways to collect leaking roofs during open houses.
Past students who have now become current educators within the school system also asked for better funding, such as Angie Flippin, who walked the halls of Grayson County in the 1990s and cheered along the football sidelines.
Five years ago she was offered two jobs: one in Grayson and one across the border in Allegheny County, N.C.
“I chose here because I love Grayson County,” she said. “When they hired me I told them I had no intentions of ever leaving here.”
But students, like Chris Shaw and Zachary Schmidt, provided some of the most heart felt comments.
Shaw spoke first on behalf of the student body and noted how the classrooms and the school in general are falling apart.
“Education is going down,” he told the board. “I’m here on behalf of my fellow classmates to stand up and say ‘that’s enough!’ We want an education… We want to succeed in life… by upgrading our materials, that enables us to go farther.”
Schmidt, a senior at Grayson County High School and a member of the school’s Teachers for Tomorrow Program talked about a poll that was taken among students in the program. The results stated that 11 out of 13 students that planned to pursue education said they would not return to Grayson County — due to salaries for one.
Teachers deserve more, he said. “You don’t go into it for the money, you don’t teach anywhere for the money, but you shouldn’t hit rock bottom for teaching here when you have students who are the same as anywhere in the state.”
While most speakers were in favor of the proposed budget, a few struggling citizens expressed their displeasure at the prospect of raising property taxes even further.
(Administration had made it clear before the meeting that to fund the requested amount, an increase in the tax levy would be needed.)
Those in opposition spoke about the thousands of residents on fixed incomes that could not afford a tax increase to fully fund the school board’s request.
One speaker who works in the mental health industry, noted that with a bachelor’s degree and 24 years of experience she makes comparable to what teachers in the county make and that she simply couldn’t afford another tax increase.
Another told the school system employees to “suck it up” because nobody was receiving pay increases these days.
Following the public hearing, County Administrator Jonathan Sweet wanted to clarify a few points.
Sweet explained that while some speakers asked the board to prioritize the funding to increase salaries, the board of supervisors has no control over where the school system puts the money it is allotted.
“The board of supervisors make an annual appropriation to the school board,” Sweet explained. “The school board sets the priorities and directs funding to those priorities.”
Sweet used an example that the school system has a six-man maintenance department and stated that the school system should use those resources to fix things such as leaking roofs.
Or, he continued, they should look for more creative ways of fixing roofs — just like the grant money the county used to replace the aging roof on the courthouse.
Sweet also dispelled comments regarding upgrades to the courthouse and in particular the board room downstairs.
“The technology downstairs that the supervisors enjoy is also the same meeting room that the school board enjoys,” he said. “Any technology updates, the school board also enjoys. Those investments were made with grant dollars… those same grant dollars could have been competed for by the school system.”
Sweet added later in the meeting that the county was able to stretch roughly $100,000 of budgeted money for courthouse improvements to around $1.2 million in updates through the use of grant money and in kind contributions from the county.
Looking at the actual per pupil contribution rates over the last two years, Sweet explained that the state amount has dropped roughly $300 per pupil. He said, at the same time, the county has been asked to increase their amount by about $250 per pupil.
“Those per pupil costs have been going up,” he continued. “This is uninclusive of the $18 million investment in education.”
The local required effort was already $80,000 more next year than it was this year, Sweet added.
In regards to the county’s financial health, he said there was no way to fund the requested amount without an increase to the tax levy.
“We are approximately $400,000 in the red in balancing the budget,” Sweet continued. “We have a budgeting in the proposed draft that includes a $2.5 million tax anticipation note to cover deficiencies in the budget.”
The county’s 2010 audit showed earlier this month that Grayson was in the hole $261,000 when it started the 2011 fiscal year.
“We have increased over the course of two years from 30 cents [on the levy] to 49 cents… and we are still deficient,” Sweet explained. Part of that tax increase was to help fund the debt associated with the $18 million in school construction and remodel.
“It’s unfairly represented that the board isn’t contributing,” he added. “The state is reducing those funds… not only are you getting less funding because of less students, but the school system is also getting less funding per student [from the state]… that’s where they are experiencing a lack of funding.”
The only way to fund a raise for teachers is to impose a tax increase on the already-eroding tax base, given the fiscal status of Grayson, Sweet said. “Our population is decreasing, so that would mean taking more [money] from fewer people.”
To cover the additional $1.4 million the school system requested, Sweet said it would equate to an approximate 9.7-cent increase to the levy – bringing Grayson’s real estate levy to the same level as Carroll County.
“We would end up increasing a full dime to support that increase,” he said. “We’ve already got to find $400,000 in reductions to balance the budget..”
Sweet also dispelled a comment made that county employees received a 5 percent pay increase.
What the county has actually done is begin to phase in covering the 5 percent contribution to the Virginia Retirement System for its employees – something that most localities, and the Grayson County School System, already do.
“This is a benefit the county is picking up to be consistent with the state and the school system,” he said. “No one’s base salary is increasing.”
Chairman Larry Bartlett spoke last and said he appreciated the comments and agreed 100 percent with them.
But in this state of a “sick economy,” Bartlett said all must tighten their belts in order to prevail.
“A raise of the tax rate by nine or 10 points is a raise in taxes that cannot be afforded by our citizens,” he said. “We must tighten our belts and work harder.”
Prior to dismissing for the evening, the board scheduled to meet on Tuesday night to discuss further and vote on the school board’s budget.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the board room.