By Debbie Hall and Taylor Boyd
A member of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors suggested it may be time to consider closing a school during a sometimes contentious March 14 budget discussion.
Denise Stirewalt, of the Peters Creek District, made the comment after a budget presentation by Schools Superintendent Jason Wood.
After initially presenting the total nearly $25 million proposed spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1 – and includes a request of nearly $6.7 million from the locality – Wood then broached the subject of an estimated $500,000 shortfall in the current budget year that ends June 30.
Last year, the school division requested $5.7 million in local funds, and received $5.2 million, Wood said.
The shortfall is due to a lack of local funds required for five incentive programs – the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), at-risk, infrastructure and operations, compensation supplement, and K-3 class size reduction, he added.
Now, the division needs either $512,000 or $492,000 from the county by June 30 to meet the required local match in the current fiscal year.
The state requires localities to fund what is called the required local effort necessary to meet the Standards of Quality (SOQ) guidelines. The county gave the school system slightly more than the minimum so it could participate in two of the incentive programs last year, Clyde DeLoach, board chairman, said.
“Is that correct,” Stirewalt asked Wood.
“I was not in those discussions,” said Wood, who was named to his current post after the retirement of then-superintendent Dean Gilbert.
“According to our information, we’re not required to fund” the incentive programs, said DeLoach. Rather, he said the county approved giving the school division a little more than the local required effort, which is specified by state law. He added the board was told by a state official that it could decide which incentive programs the school system would offer.
Wood contended members of the Patrick County School Board were tasked with programming decisions, and the county is required to pay the local match.
According to a state mandate, localities must “provide matching funds” for certain “voluntary ratio and class size reductions based on the composite index of local ability to pay.”
Wood is required to file a report with the state this summer at the close of the school year, and he said he must certify “we have received our local match. If not, the board (of supervisors) will get a bill from the state in January. … If an elected board votes to participate in those programs and the appropriation board (in this case, the county) does not fund” the required local match, “you’ll get a bill from Richmond” for the difference.
He reiterated a recent conversation with the county in which Wood said he was urged to tell the state the school division had not participated in the local match programs.
However, that would mean a loss in the current fiscal year of up to $2 million, he said, adding he did not know which programs or staff the division would cut. Additionally, “I can’t really recertify and say that we aren’t participating in something that we’ve already been doing.”
“You’re telling the citizens that the school board is the one running up the bills,” DeLoach said, and asked if Wood is willing to respond to residents concerned with spending and/or a tax increase.
“I’d be glad to talk to anybody” and explain the issue, Wood said.
Clayton Kendrick, of the Mayo River District, said giving the schools more than $500,000 would be “huge.”
Wood responded it was better than dealing with a $2 million loss.
“This is a simple fix,” Brandon Simmons, of the Dan River District, said of the difference in opinions.
He suggested the two boards arrange a place and time to call the state to find the correct answer and “get on the same page.” That way, “everybody knows what’s happening.”
Many in attendance clapped in approval.
“I know what you want,” and “what is mandated by the state … Maybe it’s time to close a school,” Stirewalt said. “Maybe it’s time to close a school.”
“I hope we will never have to do that,” Wood said.
Stirewalt posed a few questions about the fiscal year 2022-23 spending plan, mainly relating to a difference in pay raises proposed by the school division and those included in various state budget proposals.
Wood said the school division hopes to raise pay to try and retain and recruit teachers. Currently, the average teacher pay, at $44,000, is the “lowest in the region.” He added there are more lucrative opportunities throughout the region. The same is true for other staff positions, such as a school nurse, administrative staff and other positions.
Wood said that although the local division is perceived as small, it serves more students than some adjacent school systems, such as those in Floyd County and the City of Martinsville.
“We are funded by the number of students that we serve, (but) we are the smallest in pay” in the region, he added.
The audience again applauded as Wood completed his presentation.
“Let’s not do that please for anybody. Let’s not,” DeLoach said.
“I thought it was a really good presentation,” said Bryce Simmons, Stuart Town Manager, who also attended the meeting.
“Well, so much for working together,” said Norma Bozenmayer, a Smith River District resident, who earlier in the meeting encouraged officials to collaborate when confronting problems.