Students from Essex County Public Schools (ECPS) lined a wall of the county meeting room on Monday as school officials and community members questioned the board of supervisors’ handling of the budget for fiscal year 2014.
Last month, Acting Superintendent Dr. Gail Pope presented a budget of needs to the supervisors requesting $1,258,178 in addition to the county’s current contribution of $7,606,653 to the school system.
But rumors, said Chairman and Greater Tappahannock Supervisor Stanley Langford, and a new line item in the county’s proposed budget suggested that the board had actually cut school funding.
Under expenditures in the proposed budget, the line item for the transfer of money to the school fund showed $6,017,531, or a decrease of $1,589,122 from current county funding.
But the school budget line item for debt was transferred to the county as in-and-out money.
County Administrator Reese Peck also listed a new line item under the proposed budget that combined the county and schools’ debt service into total expenditures of $3,606,896.
“While it looks like a decrease in the education, it’s really an increase in their operating budget,” Peck said in an April 19 interview. “What that decrease is related to is the debt service, and we moved that all to the debt service line.”
On April 29, Langford stressed to citizens during the county’s public budget hearing that the board had in fact increased its contribution to the schools by $565,631.
According to Langford, the board added $312,926 to fund the principal and interest on the high school construction project, and $252,705 to support an increase in salary and health benefits for all school employees.
Langford said the contribution accounted for a 7.2 percent increase in local spending on ECPS and a 4.3 percent increase of the schools’ operating budget.
“Of the $39.5 million in county debt, $32 million, or 81 percent of that debt, is in the school service,” Langford reported. “The board has committed to the school system and we have not cut the funding.”
But despite Langford’s comments, members of the audience proceeded to voice their concerns.
Patrick DiSpirito, principal of Tappahannock Elementary School, and Valerie Taylor, president of the Essex Education Association, emphasized the need for a well-funded budget for ECPS.
“We don’t want to look back on the 2013-2014 school budget and ponder, ‘What if?” said DiSpirito.
Taylor said the community and school employees were counting on the board to “get it right” and help them attain the best education possible for the children.
Taylor then had over 45 children and adults, most of whom were adorned in purple, line up single-file in the middle of the room.
As they marched out, one woman in line said, “For our schools, for our teachers…all we want is top-notch education.”
Central School Board Member Elizabeth Martin said the school board and Pope’s proposal to the supervisors on March 26 was a basic needs budget and not a “wish list.”
“[The budget] just barely begins to identify the needs that are addressed in our strategic plan,” said Martin.
She added that the submitted need-based budget for the 2013-2014 school year included the first year of a five-year Capital Maintenance and Technology Plan to get SMART boards into ECPS classrooms.
Martin said the cost for the educational tool was $179,000 in Year 1.
“I know it’s a big number,” said Martin. “But…almost every school in our region and in the state has at least begun to use this technology for teaching.
“It’s like the chalkboard of yesterday,” Martin added. “We need to meet the kids where they are today, move them forward and not expect them to learn in the environment we lived in 40 years ago.”
John Clickener, publisher of the watchdog website EssexShunshine.Org, appreciated the supervisors’ support and funding of the compensation increase for school employees.
But he was also disappointed to learn that they “had failed to include the most critical items in the proposed budget.”
In Clickener’s opinion, these items were textbooks and instruction materials for Mathematics, the 2014 portion of the schools’ technology fund, instructional enhancements and safety items.
“Consider that if you fail to fund these items, you place the accreditation of the high school at risk,” said Clickener. “Please fund the top priorities identified by our acting superintendent and school board.”