By Taylor Boyd and Debbie Hall
A majority of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors do not support the idea of considering closing a school as a cost-saving measure.
“It’s a bad idea,” said Clyde DeLoach, board chairman and of the Blue Ridge District. “I absolutely do not agree with closing any school. I really do want what’s best for Patrick County.”
The school division operates a total of seven schools – six elementary schools centrally located in each community and a high school in Stuart.
Recently, school officials notified the supervisors that an estimated $500,000 is needed for the local required match in the current budget year. The additional funding request is due to optional programs the school board voted to provide to students.
During a March 14 board meeting, Denise Stirewalt, of the Peters Creek District, said it may be time to consider closing a school.
On Friday, Stirewalt said she was frustrated at the meeting. However, “for the past four- to five-years, our population has been decreasing, and the number of students has been decreasing over the last two years. I certainly think the school board should do a cost analysis and see if we actually need seven schools. And yes, it would save the county money…which I constantly have to remind people we don’t have,” she said.
Stirewalt said she does not have a particular school in mind. “That can only be determined when research is done.”
“I would not support closing a school,” said Clayton Kendrick, of the Mayo River District.
Residents are attached to the community schools, and many are even former students, Kendrick said. “I think if we can keep all the schools open in the community it’d be better. It’s a little less time spent busing the students around.”
“It would be a horrible idea, especially for the kids that would have to be bused further away to get to school,” said Doug Perry, of the Smith River District.
Brandon Simmons, who served on the Patrick County School Board before he was elected to his current post, also does not think the idea bears consideration.
“If the school board says they want to, I’d support their decision, but that would not impact the county whatsoever,” said Simmons, of the Dan River District.
That is because the funding is based solely on the number of students enrolled in the division – not the number of buildings, buses or other data, school officials have said.
“I love education and I want what’s best for” the school division, staff and students, said DeLoach, who has dedicated most of his life to education and continues to teach at two facilities.
However, his concerns are mounting.
Providing the funds to the school division would wipe out the small contingency fund the county has worked to build, DeLoach said, and federal funds that were earmarked for other projects also would have to be shifted.
Additionally, the county likely would have to seek a loan, he said, noting that two calculation methods are to blame for the most recent rift between the two boards – one is called the required local effort and the other is the required local match.
The county used the former method to calculate the amount of funds appropriated to the school division last year, and even gave slightly more than that amount, DeLoach said.
Stirewalt has said the additional funds were earmarked for two of the five optional programs.
But Schools Superintendent Jason Wood said the Patrick County School Board determines which programs to fund, and that in turn, determines the county’s contribution to the school division.
According to state law, localities “shall provide matching funds for these voluntary ratio and class size reductions based on the composite index of local ability to pay.”
“The plain fact is, that’s not what we’ve been told,” DeLoach said, adding it makes no sense that any organization could decide which programs it would offer and then present the bill to the county. “Our understanding is the required local effort is required,” but the required local match is not, he said.
“We have some say so in those. … Our lawyers will get together” and determine the calculation method, and the two boards will go from there, DeLoach said.
The county has struggled with budget issues for the last several years, and approved other taxes (such as a cigarette tax), and took a larger percentage of the Transient Occupancy Tax to try and alleviate the real estate tax burden on residents.
Now, “they’re (school board) trying to make us the bad guys for raising taxes 12-cents, and we have no say” in it, DeLoach said, adding that the budget is tight.
“If you take out public safety and education, we have $20 million to pay the rest of the bills,” DeLoach said, and added that he had high hopes for a cooperative effort until the most recent board meeting. Then, he said school officials seemed to demand, “give me what I want, and saying we (supervisors) have no say in any of the programs.”