After an overflow crowd of parents, school teachers and officials, students and county deputies spilled over into an adjoining room and hallways and 33 of 35 speakers spoke out, often passionately, in favor of giving the Floyd County School Board the budget increase it wants even if it means higher taxes, Floyd County Supervisors shelved consideration of a tax increase, drained its saving account and gave schools slightly less than 10 percent of what was requested for the next fiscal year.
Supervisors restored a $105,000 cut in the school system’s current fiscal year budget allocation and added another $173,000 in new funding, bringing the school system budget to $20,504,201.
The Board also restored an employee retention fund for the sheriff’s office and gave the Commonwealth’s Attorney funds for a part-time assistance prosecutor as part of a $30.7 million budget package that is scheduled to take effect on July 1 with no increase in property taxes for the current year.
A motion by Locust Grove Supervisor Lauren Yoder to increase property taxes by two cents per $100 died for lack of a second.
School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Harris, in an email last week to teachers and other system employees, warned that funding less than the $2.2 million increase requested by the School Board, could result in staff and program reductions, closing of schools and reduction or elimination of extra-curricular activities.
Supervisors agreed by consensus to the new budget amounts and will vote on a buget spreadsheet at the Board’s second April meeting on the 22nd. At that time a public hearing on the budget will also be scheduled, but the decision Tuesday leaves taxes at their current rates for the coming year.
Supervisors, however, acknowledged that a tax increase is coming next year and will be incorporated into property reassessments currently underway.
“We’ve done all the tweaking we can do on this budget,” Supervisor chairman Case Clinger said shortly before the Board adjourned Tuesday afternoon. “We’re going to have to raise taxes next year.”
Yoder argued that they could, and should, consider a tax increase this year, saying he was concerned about draining the county’s reserve to help fund increases this year.
In the coming year, the county may have to depend heavily on a $1.8 million line of credit that is used to cover cash shortfalls. In the current fiscal year, the county has used up to $1.2 million of that credit line for short-term loans that were then repaid.
In more than 90 minutes of comments by the 35 speakers appearing before the Supervisors in the meeting’s “public comment” period Tuesday morning, Supervisors were warned that any failure to give the school system what it wanted would have a devastating effect on education, students and the quality of life in Floyd County.
School board member Faye Nichols, who said she was speaking, “as a taxpayer,” urged the Board to take steps to implement a meals tax in the county to help raise revenue.
“We understand that a meals tax alone would not pay all of the needs of the school system, but it would help take the burden off the taxpayers of Floyd County,” she said.
Teacher Peggy Proffit of the Courthouse district said, “I’ve watched the budget process unfold over the last few years and I’m very concerned about what is not happening. It seems to me that as a county we are reactive and not proactive.”
Emily Harman, who introduced herself as the “mother of a first grader,” also supported a meals tax and told the Board that budget cuts could “just wipe away programs without even thinking about it.”
“I did not become a teacher to get rich or live a glamorous lifestyle,” Amy Baldwin, a teacher at Willis Elementary, told the Board. “This is something that I wanted to do since I stopped crying on a daily basis in kindergarten at the age of five.”
Baldwin said her college-educated husband now works as a carpenter and makes more than she does in her 15th year of teaching.
Becky Thompson, a teacher who lives in Little River District, said “we are not all here because we want teacher’s salaries raised. Anybody who thinks so is misinformed and is missing the whole point of the severity of what our county is facing. I’m here to ask you what kind of Supervisor you intend to be.”
Thompson asked Supervisors why a decision was made to cut more than $100,000 from the current year’s budget when they had not looked closely at what was needed for the upcoming year saying some “do not understand the school system’s needs.”
Annie Coartney, another teacher at Floyd Elementary, said she was “a lifelong resident” of Floyd County who comes from “multiple generations that have called Floyd County their home.”
“I’m not here today to talk about my salary,” Coartney said. “I’m here to talk about the future of Floyd County public schools. We are facing some very serious situations in our school system. Our aging buildings and buses are not getting any younger. We have children who are riding on buses that are 200,000 plus miles. If we cut teaching positions and teaching aide positions, our class sizes will balloon and those children will not get the quality instruction that they need.”
“You’ve been presented with a budget that moves our school system forward and continues the strong academic tradition that has attracted many educators like myself to Floyd County,” Check Elementary principal Jessica Cromer told the Board. “It’s worth repeating that we are one of only 36 school divisions in the state of Virginia where all of our schools are accredited. By fully funding the school budget, or at the very least preventing any fundamental cuts you will also be continuing the strong academic traditions of Floyd County. Failure to properly fund the school system will have devastating effects.”
“The children of this county are the foundation of our community,” said Marsha Vass of Little River District and a fifth-grade teacher at Willis Elementary. “Without education, there are no future firemen, no police officers, no business owners, no store clerks, no teachers, no supervisors.”
Ivenena Childress, a reading specialist at Willis Elementary, said the continuing budget cuts that the school system faces every year “could make us lose what makes Floyd County’s school system so successful.”
“I come to you today as a senior citizen, living on a fixed income, who supports a tax increase,” said Pat Campbell of Locust Grove district. “Regardless of how you choose to do it, whether it is through meals or though property taxes, it’s imperative that we do this to support these folks.”
Sandy Montgomery, principal at Willis Elementary, urged the Supervisors to “give thoughtful consideration to the school system’s total request for funding.”
Indian Valley School Board member Gene Bishop called the county’s elementary schools “the most important schools in the county. That’s where the foundation of all education is laid.”
Jeri Slaughter of the Burks Fork District noted that the school system has lost 65 positions, including teachers, assistants, specialists and support staff, since 2010.
“My daughter went from a class of 14-16 students to having 32 per class,” she said. “Do you think her grades dropped? They did.”
Lindsey Janney, senior class President of Floyd County High School, was joined by other students before the Board.
“I’ve come to two conclusions during my time in office,” she said “One, an overwhelming majority of Floyd County High School students are upset with their day-to-day lives. Every day, from eight to three, I hear echoes of ‘I hate it here’ or ‘no one cares, so why should I?’ Unfortunately, the negative climate has spiraled out of control since the time I started in eighth grade until now.”
Janney blamed the negative climate on low teacher salaries and other pressures.
“Two, I have always been told that I, as well as my peers, are the future of Floyd County,” she said. “Without the funding for the school system, it signals to me that apparently I don’t matter to those who make the decision here.”
In other budget matters, Sheriff Shannon Zeman and the Sheriff’s Office’s chief investigator, Jeff Dalton, questioned the Board’s removal of funding for an employee retention fund and singled out retired deputy and Burks Fork Supervisor Joe Turman as the cause for removal of the fund.
“I come disappointed,” Dalton said of the fund’s removal. “First, let me remind you that it was stated that this fund would never be removed by this Board of Supervisors. Number two, it is our understanding that it is being removed by this Board at the request of Board member Joe Turman because he doesn’t like the way that Sheriff Zeman disburses it.
“Sheriff Zeman asked for this as a way to help retain employees at the Sheriff’s Office due to the desire and need to look for employment at other departments which offer better pay and benefits and was placed in the budget by Supervisors with the stipulation that it would remain in place,” Dalton said. “Please remember this. I believe Floyd is a place where our word is still as good as a written contract. Number two, Sheriff Zeman is the sheriff, has been elected for three terms. He has first hand knowledge of what our department needs.”
Towards the end of the public comments, Elmer Underwood of Indian Valley, criticized what he called a lack of response of the sheriff’s office.
“In my opinion, the sheriff’s department sucks,” he said.
Linda Wagner of Floyd closed out the public comments session by saying Supervisors have been victims of “a bullying session” from what she feels were “disparaging” remarks by some supporters of the school system and its budget request.
At an afternoon budget work session, Board Chairman Case Clinger said he and Dan Campbell had looked over the current budget requests and felt that some increases from various departments could be granted if the county “zeroed out” the county’s set aside budget of $260,000 and used those funds to provide extra funding for the school system and other requests.
Clinger proposed restoring the $105,000 cut from the current school budget at a budget work session in March and adding $173,125,566 in new funds. Both actions became part of the new budget.
Clinger said he was reluctant to increase taxes this year and felt the Board should wait until the new property assessments are in place before taking an overall look at the county’s tax options.
Indian Valley Supervisor Fred Gerald said a a tax increase at this time would place additional hardships on county residents, especially senior citizens on fixed incomes.
Little River Supervisor Virgel Allen told The Floyd Press that while public speakers at meetings before the School Board and Tuesday’s meeting before the Supervisors have shown overwhelming support for a tax increase to fund the school budget, his feedback from constituents has been “just the opposite.”
“Nearly everyone who has talked to me opposes a tax increase,” he said.
Yoder said that while he introduced a motion for a two-cent increase in tax rates, he did so “because I am not comfortable with draining our reserve fund.” He feels the county needs “to consider other options.”
In his appearance before the Supervisors Tuesday, Dr. Harris said that officials said a proposed meals tax fail when the Supervisors failed to vote unanimously to ask the state for approval to levy the tax.
Indian Valley Supervisor Fred Gerald, who cast the sole vote against the meal tax, said that in retrospect he was wrong to oppose the tax levy and said Tuesday he should have voted for the increase.
Clinger also said the county, rather than seeking state approval to levy the extra sales tax on meals to help increase revenue, could look next year at submitting such a tax proposal to county voters through a referendum.