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HILLSVILLE ― “Don't close our school,” members of the Gladesboro community pleaded with the Carroll County School Board at a fiscal year 2013 budget meeting Monday.
Closing Gladesboro School, laying off 40 workers or shutting down other programs and extracurricular activities may happen if educators can't convince the county supervisors to cover a $2 million shortfall with local funds.
Parents reacted strongly to the idea of closing the county's smallest school in order to make ends meet at Monday's meeting. Two parents and a student also asked the school board to spare the JROTC program at the Carroll County High School from the cuts.
Citizens got a chance to speak after Superintendent Greg Smith presented the budget and the school board talked about change orders for construction at the high and intermediate schools.
Carroll County Public Schools face a defining moment in its future this budget season, Smith told the board members and a packed crowd in the meeting room.
"This budget will in many ways define the future of this school division for many years," he said. "It will determine our values for the future of this school division for years."
The superintendent wonder if people will stick together and continue to value the children that the schools serve.
The budget challenges are many ― a 9.5 percent health insurance increase; an increase of the Virginia Retirement System rate from 11.33 to 16.66 percent; the group life rate going from .28 percent to 1.19 percent; the $992,441 in federal jobs monry gone; the state's increase in the local share for the school system's funds; and the loss of $416,911 in supplemental funds from the state.
State basic aid has fallen from more than $15 million in fiscal year 2009 to a proposed $11.57 million for fiscal year 2013.
The state has required Carroll schools to give a 1 percent salary adjustment to offset the Virginia Retirement System for staff.
After several years of not filling more than 50 vacant positions, school officials will not refill another seven positions under this budget, Smith said. Those positions are a custodian, three full-time equivalent secondary teachers, a librarian, a teacher aide and a guidance counselor.
State funds show an increase of $400,000, but these monies have been designated for specific programs, like pre-kindergarten, class size reductions, at-risk students and retirement system payments.
As a result, the schools will request an additional $1.83 million in local funding to make up the difference, Smith said.
"This is not the first time you have heard the need for fiscal year 2013," the superintendent said. "We began having these discussions in 2010. We knew this day was coming and the school system has done everything possible to prepare for this moment."
More than 83 percent of the schools' budget, or about $27.8 million, goes toward paying personnel, he pointed out. That has an economic impact on Carroll County.
"These funds are then paid to employees or vendors who spend a great deal of this money within Carroll County," Smith said. "The nearly 1,000 full- and part-time employees of this county buy homes, cars, groceries, go to restaurants locally.
"This money multiplies as it enters the local economy and is returned in the forms of goods and services."
Smith believes the money that goes into the school systems has been well spent, resulting in 10 out of 10 fully accredited schools, a highly qualified staff, dual credit courses that saves families college tuition money and the new science, technology, engineering and math initiative.
Don't cut JROTC
After the citizen comment period started, Steve Burnette, who has a son in JROTC, said that the Cavalier Battalion should get the same consideration as sports.
"What I'd like you to consider is the JROTC program is very important," he said. "We look at our sports program and we have money to put in those."
Students benefit from being involved in sports, but how many go on to become professional athletes? Burnette said.
"If you look at the JROTC program, they develop young men and women with a sense of discipline and self-respect… the majority of them go on into the military. Some continue on to the college ROTC program and become leaders of men and troops who are deployed and protect this country."
JROTC is as important as arts and music programs, because it will produce leaders and citizens.
The 50 kids enrolled in JROTC will take something from it and carry it for the rest of their lives. Burnette said the school board can't just think of it as a line item in a budget.
Having been a substitute bus driver, School Board Member Olen Gallimore noticed that the students wearing the JROTC uniform were the best behaved on the bus.
Parent Randy Wilson, a Galax resident, said that his son wanted to be in JROTC so badly that he transferred to Carroll high.
"Carroll County is the only school within two hours here that offers JROTC," he said. "My son wants to go to the naval academy… but with the help of the JROTC behind him, I think he just might."
Wilson sees more discipline and leadership ability in his son since he joined the program this year.
He understands that there are difficult decisions to make in these hard times, but JROTC produces leaders.
The JROTC program continues to grow with new recruits and has a winning Raider challenge team, said Ricky Wilson, a ninth grader who spoke after his father.
"This program means a lot to us, it means a lot to my peers," the student said. "We all learn values in the program we can take with us for the rest of our lives: respect, discipline, integrity."
The program teaches the students to think ahead in their lives and make goals for themselves and prepares them mentally, he said. It feels more like a brotherhood than a class.
Save our school
Sarah Allen, president of the Gladesboro parent-teacher-student organization, has a son in first grade there.
Members of the community have concerns about the possible closing of Gladesboro, she said.
"If we were to close Gladesboro Elementary School, our children will have to be bused to other elementary schools," she said. "Therefore, we're going to have overcrowded classrooms, we're going to make learning more difficult, as well as teaching."
She expects student achievement to go down if that's the case, and that's something that she's certain that educators don't want.
Students there have formed bonds like brothers and sisters and it would be a shame to break that by closing Gladesboro and by sending those children to other schools when they live next door to each other, Allen said. She also noted that Gladesboro is a governor's award-winning school and has a legacy for many people in the community.
"To close the school would be like taking a piece of every one of us away," she said.
Allen encouraged school board members to look for other ways to make up the shortfall if the supervisors do not provide the needed funding.
Keith Hommema, head of the Carroll Education Association, encouraged the school board to request the full funding needed from the supervisors to keep the school system intact.
In the proposed cuts, the school system would negatively impact children and the staff, he said.
"The cutting of programs would mean large classroom [sizes]... less attention to children... less specialized attention to them."
Each child is special in their own way, and the job of teachers is to find the way to build them up.
"Our board of supervisors have been spending money left and right for years on infrastructure," he said. "These children we have right now that we are training, that we are equipping, that we are bringing to their full potential is what employers are going to be looking for.
"We've been sitting back letting them build their infrastructure for years," Hommema said. "It's now the time to say, now let's go to the real infrastructure ― the students, the future of this community and this county."
He hoped the supporters of education would stick together and take their message to the county supervisors, too.
Andy Jackson said his mother taught at Gladesboro for 20 years, and the community remains very proud of its school and the staff.
He pointed out that the facility still isn't paid for, from its renovation and expansion in Phase I of school construction.
"Close the thing, I assume you're still going to have to keep paying," Jackson said. "To me, it don't make good sense to pay $2 million on something if you're not getting any use out of it."
What will the school board do with the school if it is closed, Jackson asked. He believes that the planned closing of Woodlawn will be enough for the near future.
His community has already lost Laurel Fork School to closing and consolidation, he pointed out. The next-closest school is Meadows of Dan, and that's in another county.
"I don't think our one school we have on the eastern part of Carroll County is the answer," he said.
An emotional April Bowman asked the school board to think about that, too. "I barely live in Carroll County. My children are 10 minutes away from Meadows of Dan."
There's beauty in a small school ― her children know that their classmates are family and they don't stress over school. Gladeboro has strong family support and provides a quality education.
The school is the heart of the community, and it would be sad to see an empty building there, she said.
More than half the audience stood up when Annetta Stanley asked the supporters of Gladesboro School to rise.
She knows from volunteering there that teachers at the school care about their students.
"It is a tragedy when a school closes in a community," said Stanley, who went to Laurel Fork. "You lose a sense of community that can't be brought about in any other way.
"When you disperse these children to other schools, they lose those bonds of neighbor to neighbor taking care of each other…"
Fancy Gap Supervisor Phil McCraw stood and faced the audience and said he's not in favor of the idea to close the school.
"I'm just going to tell everyone from Gladesboro this: I will not support closing Gladesboro School," he said to applause. "I feel very reasonably sure the majority of the rest of our board will not support the closing of Gladesboro School."
Living in an area that's gone through two school closings, he realizes how important schools are to communities, he added.
"I feel like this was put out in the newspaper, in all fairness it shouldn't have been," McCraw said. "I think you guys [school board members] knew we're not going to close Gladesboro School.
"Let's work together, let's don't work against each other," he added. "The board of supervisors is not a villain here. We want to do what we can, what's best for our county."
County officials are working to come up with solutions, but that's being held up by a lack of budget figures coming out of Richmond, McCraw said.
School Board Member Reggie Gardner said educators knew the day would come when there would be a deficit.
"We saw it coming," he said. "We've used stimulus money, we've used textbook money, we used every dime we could find to plug the hole.”
Smith had warned the county officials that sources like the stimulus money wouldn't be around to use any more.
"Unfortunately, that day may be here," Gardner said. "I hope we can meet the needs of this school. There's not a thing on that list that I'm in favor of cutting. Anything we cut is going to hurt our programs, our schools and our children."
School Board Member Joey Haynes said he's a product of the Carroll school system and came through one of the schools now closed.
"I identify with what you folks are saying about Gladesboro," he said. "You're locality, it loses its identity."
He knows that each item on the list of potential cuts, like the school and JROTC, is important to its participants.
Haynes took as evidence that the ninth grader who got up and spoke about JROTC is having a good educational experience in his class.
"I couldn't be sitting where I am today if I had not had a good educational experience," the school board member said.
School Board Member Sandy Hendrick disagreed with the assertion that the list of potential cuts should not have been made public.
Several school board members have received many e-mails about the potential cuts. Hendrick said he hadn't replied to them all yet, because he got a little overwhelmed by it.
"How many of you folks would have sent those e-mails or responded tonight had you not saw the potential damage that could be done to our school system through lack of funding?" he asked. "How many of you would have even known?"
Smith was trying to alert the supporters of the school system that there was a severe funding problem, and it may be up to the public to solve it.
"It's going to boil down to costing somebody," Hendrick said.
He thanked people for coming out and showing they care.
"It may boil down to, are we willing to pay extra taxes?" he said. "I think it's going to be tough."
School Coard Chairman Brian Spencer called on Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly to do their job and pass the state budget, so localities could finish theirs.
Strong schools are an essential investment for the success of Virginia's children and economy, but the state has cut Carroll's basic aid by $3.4 million over the last three years.
Take away the $1 million in federal stimulus and that number reaches $4.4 million.
"That short list made me sick, made Reggie sick, makes everybody in this room sick," Spencer continued. "Obviously, it makes Mr. McCraw sick."
The list of cuts is not an idle threat.
"We've cut $4.4 million over basically the last five years from this county budget," he said. "There's nothing more to squeeze. It's going to have to be something on that list if we don't get the funding."
He agrees that the board of supervisors are not villains in this ― they are victims just like the schools.
But revenue will have to be raised from somewhere, Spencer said. Citizens won't be able to ask the supervisors to give $1.9 million without raising taxes.
School Board Member Olen Gallimore said he's not in favor of closing any schools or doing anything else on that list, but it could come down to that.
"I just hope the state will come through with full funding for us," he said. He encouraged the supporters to contact their state representatives to lobby for more funding.
"If they have to raise taxes somehow other than us having to do it, or the county having to do it, so be it," he concluded.