WISE — County supervisors appear to be on track to provide level funding for county schools in fiscal 2019-20.
That’s a striking change from one month earlier, when County Administrator Michael Hatfield proposed reducing school funds for the next fiscal year by more than $944,000 — an idea that was met by anger and outrage from many school officials and employees.
During supervisors’ June 13 meeting, Hatfield said that upon further examination, it appears the county can provide schools with level funds after all.
The difference, he explained during a PowerPoint presentation, is this: While the May budget proposal included creation of a new debt service fund for school construction debt, it was later pointed out that such a fund already exists.
Going forward, Hatfield said, budget discussions for any coming fiscal year will begin in the first month of a current fiscal year. He proposed creating a standing committee that would include two supervisors, two school board members, himself and schools Superintendent Greg Mullins that will meet regularly and improve communication between the organizations.
Hatfield also responded to what he termed “misinformation” that had arisen after the May budget discussion.
County schools were not targeted for funding cuts “because they are the easiest,” as was asserted, according to Hatfield. Schools spend about 44 percent of county revenue and were “last to be hit,” with a roughly 20 percent proposed cut, he said.
He further disputed claims that the school system was blindsided by the proposal. Discussion of a potential shortfall was discussed with school personnel one week before the school board passed its budget, though a dollar amount was not discussed, he said.
Also, Hatfield disputed claims that Wise County schools are not as well-funded locally as their neighbors. Among nine Southwest Virginia school systems, he said, Washington County gets the most local money at $27.7 million and Wise County is second at $16.2 million.
District One Supervisor Fred Luntsford asked if there will be sufficient funds for planned pay raises in the schools budget. Hatfield said there should be enough funding, but he and Luntsford noted that the decision to include raises is up to the school board.
Luntsford said after the May presentation, supervisors were targeted by a “frenzy” of social media attacks that were mean-spirited, accusing the county board of sending schools on a “race to the bottom.”
People were suggesting supervisors be voted out of office based on a misconception that there would be no money for raises, according to Luntsford.
In fact, he said, county supervisors have been very generous to schools.
Luntsford said he will not be intimidated with regard to getting re-elected. He said he will vote for the revised budget. Luntsford added that it’s time to show mutual respect and work together.
During a public hearing on the county budget, Mullins thanked the board and Hatfield for the proposed schools funding change. He added that as long as officials are talking and coming up with new ideas, good things will follow.
Wise County Education Association President Paul Clark echoed those sentiments and noted that a strong school system is one way the county attracts new residents.
Meanwhile, Clark said, some county teachers are working at second or third jobs in businesses that are shutting down.
Teacher Kim McKee of Big Stone Gap disputed the allegation that anger over the previous proposal was centered on getting raises. Teachers were thinking about struggling students and how decisions about schools will affect their success, not raises, she said.
Dozens of educators applauded her comments.
College-level educator Justin Necessary of Wise said Wise County does not take education seriously enough. A lot of local students graduate and leave the area because their career choices are not available here, he said.
While he supports school funding, former Coeburn town manager Drew Mullins said the county has taken on too much debt and did not show the foresight to set aside more coal severance tax revenue before it declined.
Mullins said he has great concern as to whether the proposed county budget’s revenue projections will hold true. The county continues raising taxes while tapping into its unobligated fund balance, and that cannot continue, he noted.
Mullins urged supervisors to think about people, not politics, and to encourage young people to get involved in local government.
Retired college professor Walter Crouse suggested that local public school systems must think more regionally as they all lose students.
Pound resident Harold Greear said he found it “regrettable” that supervisors will not approve the previous budget proposal. He criticized the decision to consolidate high schools several years ago and blamed consolidation costs for the county’s current budget strain.
While he thinks Greg Mullins “has done a fairly good job,” Greear said continued tax increases are irresponsible. There are too many county school employees at a time when student numbers are declining, he added.
Supervisors will vote on the county budget during a recessed meeting June 21 at 6 p.m.