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Supervisor Jim Kennedy (Stonehouse) used a joint meeting between the board of supervisors and the school board on Wednesday to promise that whether through cutting spending or increasing taxes, he will vote to fully fund the schools’ request for infrastructure costs.
A proposed 11 percent real estate tax increase would generate more than $9 million in revenue for the county, with County Administrator Bryan Hill allocating $3.2 million to the school infrastructure costs in his proposed budget.
The $3.2 million would pay for 10 replacement school buses, a roof replacement at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School and roof work at James River Elementary and Lafayette High schools.
Kennedy was joined in making the promise by Supervisor Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown), who said he has the “utmost confidence” in statements from Superintendent Steve Constantino that the infrastructure work is essential.
“[The $3.2 million for infrastructure costs in the county spending plan would fund] what we have determined as critical [as in] if we don’t do them we really get into a red zone in terms of infrastructure problems,” Constantino said. “We don’t want to get into leaking roofs, collapsed walls. Those kinds of things that can happen pretty quickly.”
Onizuk used the meeting to ask the school board whether the needs were critical enough to justify a tax increase.
School Board Member Ruth Larson (Berkeley) said she would not be at the meeting if the needs were not critical. Jim Kelly (Jamestown) agreed. Their colleague Heather Cordasco (Roberts), who is also running for the Roberts seat on the board of supervisors, said the projects are necessary but that she could not comment on the tax increase.
“If you’re asking for us to justify your tax increase, I’m not going to do that,” she said. “Are these things necessary? Yes.”
The Jamestown supervisor also asked the school board members and Constantino what they would do if the board elected not to provide the $3.2 million in additional funding for the projects.
“We’d have to go back and look at it,” Constantino said. “There’s a tipping point with ‘do more with less’ where you do less with less, and we would be at that point.”
Cordasco said “we would have no problem” adjusting to a lower number, but it was not fair for Onizuk to ask the school board “hypotheticals.”
“You bring us a number, and we’ll bring you back what we’ll do,” she said.
Kennedy brought up several questions citizens have repeatedly asked in the past few weeks as the supervisors have held community meetings to gather feedback on the proposed tax increase — which would raise the real estate tax rate by 8.2 cents to 85.2 cents per $100 of assessed value — and the budget proposal.
“We’ve continued to be bombarded by citizens that come to us with school board issues,” Kennedy said. “Why? I’m not quite certain. I wish they’d go to the schools and question you.”
He asked Constantino and the school board about a “cadillac [health insurance] plan” that several citizen have said is available to school division staffers at an excessive cost to the schools.
The superintendent said the plan the citizens are referencing is set to be canceled this year as part of a package of health insurance changes that should save the schools about $600,000.
“Our plan is to continue to drive [health insurance costs] down with different options,” Constantino said.
Kennedy also asked about altering school schedules, which several citizens have suggested to save the schools money.
“I have heard rumor of a plan with a different schedule saving money, and I’d be happy to take a look at that,” Constantino said.
He said that he was not prepared Wednesday to comment on block scheduling as more research is needed and that a task force has been established to consider possible scheduling changes for the schools.
Several school board members and Supervisor Michael Hipple (Powhatan) used the meeting to make extended comments about how hard teachers work and the high quality of the school division. They repeatedly emphasized the importance of each student and how it often takes multiple staff members to help the students maximize their potential.
The $3.2 million for schools represents the largest part of the $9,020,000 that would be raised by the tax rate increase. The rest of the money would go toward several measures, including infrastructure for capturing runoff from precipitation, stabilizing a debt fund the county has been drawing down since the recession started and working on some deferred repairs on county-owned buildings.
The supervisors held a public hearing Tuesday night to gather citizen feedback about the proposed tax increase and budget. The majority of speakers supported the increase, with several urging the supervisors to fully fund the schools. The proposed budget seeks to increase the operations contribution to the schools by $1.6 million, which is about $610,000 short of what the schools have requested.
The supervisors have three more work sessions scheduled in April before the adoption of the budget, which is scheduled for April 28. The budget covers spending in the county from July 1 through June 2016.