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Residents Address Supes During Budget Hearing

Protect education and develop a thorough, comprehensive financial plan of action that will lay out a strategic pathway to fund necessary items to lead Halifax County forward and continue to make it a good place to live, work and raise a family.

That was the theme of messages nine speakers delivered Monday night to the Halifax County Board of Supervisors during a 30-minute public hearing on the proposed 2010-11 county and school budgets.

Approximately 30 citizens attended the public hearing and were offered an opportunity to comment on the proposed $89,971,290 county budget that includes a real estate tax rate of 43 cents per $100 value, personal property tax rate of $3.60 per $100 value and machinery and tools tax rate of $1.26 per $100 value.

The draft budget also calls for using $910,510 from Halifax County’s $7 million reserve fund in order to balance the books.

Individual county departments which saw their state funding reduced were asked to absorb all of those cuts within their budgets, and all outside agencies were asked to reduce their current budget by five percent in the coming year.

Implementing the county’s new Ag/Forestal Districts also is decreasing tax revenues by an estimated $80,000, and the required advertising and notification costs also resulted in an increase in the proposed budget.

The county’s proposed budget reflects a savings of about $3,000 after supervisors voted to change insurance carriers for the county’s hospitalization policy.

The most surprising comments of the evening came from a school board member who urged supervisors to withhold county funding for schools “unless and until the school board has initiated an efficiency study of the school system’s operations and the spending of taxpayers’ money.”

The draft budget includes level-funding for Halifax County Public Schools — $13,256,000, the same amount that the county allocated for schools in the current year’s budget, although schools will see a decrease of about $3 million in state funding during the coming year.

In an effort to offset the state cut, last month supervisors approved a measure that allows the school system to carry over any unspent funds from this year’s budget, thereby giving them more flexibility in paying their bills.

During the hearing Monday night, supervisors listened to comments about the budget from community and business leaders, teachers, a farmer and one  outspoken school board member.

ED-4 School Board representative Joe Gasperini seemed to have surprised some members of the board Monday night when he asked that they place a condition on funding local monies to the school system ­ that a portion of the $13 million allocation be withheld “unless and until the school board has initiated an efficiency study of the school system’s operations and the spending of taxpayer money.”

Gasperini told supervisors he was speaking because he wanted the school board “to have the opportunity to be able to act on the concerns of the community’s citizens, its school teachers and the concerns of you supervisors.

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “the school board has been led to believe that the early retirement package offered is sufficient enough to make up our budget shortfall, and there is no reason to look at further budget cuts.”

Gasperini said he believes the school system contains “many fluff programs that are taking funds away from the basic educational needs of the children of Halifax County.

“For the over two years I have been on the school board, there have been concerted efforts to preserve the central office and divert attention away from any effort to cut back on any of the pet programs that are implemented and even expanded upon.

“Partial information, innuendo, fear tactics and outright intimidation have been a way of life in this school system for too long,” Gasperini charged.

“I have heard over and over again, get five votes to any discussion or point raised that questioned any major item brought forth that was not aligned with what our superintendent wanted.

“By keeping many uninformed or misinformed, there is seldom the ability to get a majority to counter many of the questionable expenses of precious funds,” Gasperini continued.

He urged supervisors to hire “an independent, knowledgeable outside group to perform a study of the school system operations” to determine how school resources could best be used.

Gasperini suggested the state may be willing to fund the majority of this study, and the supervisors previously have indicated their willingness to fund the balance.

“I believe it will be money well spent, and it will ensure that there will be no group or programs that are not subject to scrutiny,” he concluded.

Speaking out in support of county educators, especially young new teachers beginning their careers, Cluster Springs Elementary School Associate Principal Marliss H. Barczak told supervisors a storm is heading in the county’s direction.

“Our teachers and children are in the path of that storm. Only you have the power to prevent the devastation and loss that will haunt our children and grandchildren for generations,” she said.

She explained that during the generations of her parents and grandparents, people could secure a promising career with only a high school diploma. 

“Not so much anymore.  We have only 14 percent of our population holding college degrees. Our children and grandchildren will need to continue their educations after high school to prepare for the global marketplace,” she said.

“The United States has always led the way in innovation and creativity…but we can’t stop or even pause while the rest of the world continues to forge on.  It is the young, enthusiastic, technologically well-prepared teachers who are shaking in their boots right now for fear of being cut from the career that they have worked for and are passionate about,” Barczak added. 

She said county teachers have had a salary freeze for nearly three years now, while the price of rearing their families continued to climb. 

“Their student loans still need to be repaid, and the cost of continuing their education to a master’s level or beyond is on the rise,” she told supervisors.

She told how teachers work hours upon hours at home, before school starts each morning, and after school ends each day providing the best education for children without cost to the boards. 

“They buy books to read aloud to your children, they buy stickers and pencils for incentives, and they create costumes to bring storybooks and history to life.  We cannot afford to cut these fine, young teachers that we have educated and reared. 

“We cannot allow our children to lose out on the fine arts, technology, agriculture, sports, nor can we allow our kids to sit in over-crowded classrooms where teachers find it impossible to give them the individual attention they need in order to be successful,” Barczak continued.

“The storm is almost here, our young teachers have a target on their backs, and our children are ground zero,” she said suggesting supervisors consider using the “rainy day” reserve fund “so that this devastation does not occur.  If this isn’t a rainy day for Halifax County…then I don’t know what one is.  No one wants Halifax County to be left behind.

“Don’t do the politically correct thing, do the morally correct thing, and save the future of our children,” Barczak concluded.

Veteran Cluster Springs Elementary teacher Sandy Slayton, who has taught for 26 years, echoed Barczak’s comments telling supervisors that despite financial hardships the county is experiencing, “if we don’t put our money into education, we will regret it later.”

She emphasized that maintaining small classroom sizes is so important especially in the lower grades, and finding ways to keep new young teachers on the job here should be a priority during this budget crisis.

“If they are forced to move elsewhere to find a job, they won’t come back,” Slayton said urging supervisors to do what they can.

“We’re counting on you,” Slayton concluded.

Halifax County Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Pool, speaking on behalf of the board of directors, challenged supervisors to develop a financial plan of action to lead Halifax County forward.

“Cutting funding for education is not a path to success. Not providing our students textbooks to keep up to date with the information, not allowing our educators to further their education and knowledge and not replacing worn out equipment is certainly not going to help local businesses retain employees or to attract business expansion and new business development which is the plan to financial sustainability,” she said.

Pool suggested if supervisors were to develop a long-range strategic plan that outlines incremental increases in funding sources, “we believe Halifax County can successfully educate our future community and business leaders and create a world-class workforce,” she concluded.

County businessman Wayne Stanfield told supervisors “your job is one I don’t envy.”

In his comments, Stanfield emphasized the critical value of the school system to the business community and noted jobs in Halifax County and future growth are tied directly to the quality of the county school system.

“Our tools have never been better than they are right now,” Stanfield said, thanking supervisors, school board members and the school administration leadership team.

“We must not allow our school system to begin a slide that will be difficult to stop,” he said urging board members to fund schools at the highest level possible. “The business community in Halifax County is 100 percent behind the school system. We will do everything in our power to keep the highest level of education in our public schools.”

Like the chamber president, Stanfield encouraged county leaders to work with the community in creating “a transition plan to deal with the county’s impending shortfall of revenue due to changes being made at the state level.

“My company’s future and the future of every business in the county are dependent on the value placed on education and quality schools. We can not attract business and skilled professionals here without a world class school system,” he concluded.

Halifax Forward Chairman Nick Long addressed his apprehensions about impending state and local cuts to education funding.

However, he said his concerns are much broader than just education.

“We as a community must develop a plan that will allow us to grow even when we face hard economic challenges and whatever else may come in the future,” Long said, urging supervisors to take it one step at a time.

“If we anticipate increased costs combined with reductions in federal and state support, then we must find additional local revenues from as diverse sources as possible,” he concluded.

Halifax Chamber of Commerce Chairman Nookie Green, a lifetime county resident and 25-year small business owner here, told supervisors he was speaking Monday night as the parents of a Halifax County High School freshman.

“The message of tonight is surrounding the funding of the school system going forward. This is not an issue that ‘s going to go away once these decisions are made concerning this year, so we’ve got to look forward, and not only accommodate what we’re trying to do in the immediate future but also down the road,” he said.

He implored supervisors not to put the school board in a position where teaching positions would have to be eliminated.

“If we lose professional people who locate here, who want to live here and raise their families, it would be a shame to lose these young teachers without tenure,” Green said.

He concluded telling supervisors to help school board members keep the student-teacher ratio “at the level it is today,” and at the very least “to level fund” the school system.

Also speaking Monday night were Margaret Coleman of South Boston and Nathalie farmer Bernard Mitzler.

Coleman told supervisors she “shutters to think that persons in our community would rally to demand educational cuts as a way to balance the budget.”

She concluded urging board members to be cautious about cutting education and “to focus on our future which begins in the hallways of our schools.”

Mitzler said all those speaking Monday night had “made it real easy on” the board of supervisors.

“They just volunteered a way for you to get money, go after the businesses and leave us farmers and let the tobacco money alone. They’re all willing. Each one of them volunteered, so go after the businesses,” Mitzler concluded.

Following the public hearing, several supervisors commented on the proposed budget and reminded citizens the county has few options to raise additional revenue funding other than by raising taxes.

ED#1 Supervisor J. T. Davis said he is seeking the help of citizens to convince the General Assembly to give counties additional ways to raise revenues.

ED#8 Supervisor W. Bryant Claiborne said all supervisors are concerned about education, but he added all the public needs to be educated about the future.

“Everyone here tonight understands what’s going on. It’s the people who are not here that don’t.  What we’ve heard here tonight, the board understands,” Claiborne told those in attendance.

“We may get by better than most localities this year, but what you have to think about is the future,” he added. “So we should begin educating the people about spending. If we can’t get the expenses cut down, then the money is going to have to come from somewhere, and the only thing we have is real estate taxes and personal property taxes, so that means an increase, and nobody wants to hear that, but money doesn’t grow on trees, so we have to educate our people.”

ED#4 Supervisor Doug Bowman pointed out the proposed budget is 2 percent lower than the current year’s budget, but he added flexibility in a $90 million budget is less than citizens may think.

“We have in this projected budget with no increase in tax revenue a $900,000 deficit for the upcoming year,” he said noting supervisors plan to tap the reserve fund to balance it so taxes will not have to be raised.

“You can’t keep pulling $900,000 from a $7 million reserve and still keep any kind of credit rating that we needed to go borrow $60 million for the three new school projects,” Bowman explained.

“The money is not there. The jobs aren’t there. Social services is busting at the seams with caseloads because of this. Public safety has a higher burden during times like these. I think we have done a good job. We are fiscally sound. We’re not going bankrupt. We’re trying to weather this economic storm, and it’s bad. We can handle this, but everybody is going to feel a little bit of pain,” he concluded.

Supervisor Chairman Bill Fitzgerald pointed out Halifax County finds itself in better shape than counties to its east, west and north. “We have been good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” he added.

Supervisors have set another meeting for Monday, March 29, when they are slated to adopt the county budget and set tax rates.

In other business Monday night, supervisors set a public hearing for April 5 on the botanical garden project lease and agreed to advertise the South of Dan Elementary School property for sale at a price of $200,000.

County Administrator George Nester explained the people who entered a purchase agreement with the county last spring to purchase the building have been unable to secure financing for that property.