Supervisors asked to fully fund schools

By Heather Michon

At least a dozen Fluvanna residents took the podium at a special hearing on the county’s proposed FY24 tax rates and budget on Wednesday night (April 12).

The overwhelming majority asked the supervisors to fully fund the School Board’s request for an additional $2.6 million to raise staff pay to a competitive level and increase student access to mental and emotional health services.

Kathy Swenson Miller said she had been dismayed to see a previous board cut school funding some 12 or 13 years ago. “I understand that the Fluvanna schools have been struggling to catch up ever since that significant blow to their budget,” she said. 

Miller urged them to fund the schools to prevent a potentially “dark future” for students in the system today.

“It is not the responsibility of the children to correct the problems. It’s not their fault,” said Linda Staiger. “Are we going to just shrug them off, these children that are having difficulties, or are we going to provide them what we are capable of giving as a community?”

Rudy Garcia, who has worked with a child abuse prevention organization called Families First Virginia for over a decade, said, “we can show directly how not taking care of children when they are young leads to these children becoming incarcerated, dropping out of the workforce, and becoming a burden on society. Isn’t it much smarter to spend the money early and not have to spend the money later?”

School board members James Kelley and Perrie Johnson also spoke during the comment period.

Johnson said the lack of competitive pay for Fluvanna teachers wasn’t a new development, but in the past, they had been able to draw qualified teachers. Now, “we get unlicensed, unqualified teachers,” as more veteran staff went to better-paying districts. 

Kelley went over some of the key points of the school board’s requests, adding: “I am wildly optimistic and hopeful for your support for this budget.”

Following the public hearing, supervisors continued their discussion on school board funding, a topic that has dominated budget work sessions for the past several weeks.

In the public hearing notice published in recent issues of the Fluvanna Review, the maximum advertised budget for FY24 is $104,261,993, an increase of 6.36 percent over FY23.  The maximum advertised tax rates are $0.845 per $100 of assessed value for real property and mobile homes, $4.15 for personal property, $2.90 for business and public utilities, and $1.90 for machinery and tools. 

The School Board’s total budget for FY24 is $53.7 million, with $22.4 million coming from Fluvanna County. This is $2.6 million above the FY23 funding request.  

Supervisors had tentatively funded $2.2 million of the request, with the possibility of adding $180,000 in additional funds.

Chair Mozell Booker (Fork Union) said she was in favor of giving the schools the entire $2.6 million, but County Administrator Eric Dahl reminded the board that with the maximum budget now set, they can’t exceed that amount. The only way to fully fund the school request at this juncture would mean cutting over $400,000 from elsewhere in the budget.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chris Fairchild (Cunningham) argued against funding such a large request at a time when taxpayers were under considerable economic pressure. Far from supporting $2.2 million, he felt they should focus on some critical items on the School Board’s budget, which total a little over $1.1 million.

“There’s a lot of households in Fluvanna that are now barely making it as it is,” he said, and with a potential economic recession on the horizon, adding a substantial tax burden “is concerning to me.”

While there was no formal vote on the issue, the majority of the supervisors seemed comfortable with a funding package that would provide at least that $2.2 million level.

“You know, my life has been spent in a Fluvanna County school, whether I was a student or a teacher,” said Mike Sheridan (Columbia) during their discussion. “That’s my life. It’s one of the loves of my life. I just regret that we can’t do everything we should do.”

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