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Session heated, but no action from Halifax County School Board

Tempers flared, and emotions ran high during Monday’s special called meeting of the Halifax County School Board.

However, trustees took no action on how to balance the $600,000 budget deficit left after the Halifax County Board of Supervisors failed to provide level funding of $13,256,000 as in the two previous years.

Last month supervisors reduced the anticipated local funding to $12,656,000 forcing school board members to search for additional ways to balance the budget.

At the beginning of Monday’s special called meeting, Halifax County School Board Chairman Stuart Comer said no vote would take place on budget decisions until next week’s regular school board meeting.

Earlier, school officials had predicted more school personnel would lose their jobs as a result of the supervisors’ decision to cut local funding to the schools.

Trustees discussed a number of cost-cutting recommendations including going to a single bus system that would eliminate 10 positions and save the system $250,000.

Additional personnel retirements and moves are expected to account for the attrition of four full-time and one part-time positions totaling savings of $232,987, while the elimination of one central office administrative position will add $118,586 to the budget.

All combined, these 15 full-time and one part-time personnel reductions will account for $601,572 in savings.

According to Assistant Superintendent Joe Griles, names of personnel who are retiring, moving or whose jobs may be eliminated as a result of these cuts remain confidential and will not be released until the board takes action.

School board trustees also considered several other optional reductions in programs and administrative personnel contracts.

Among the reductions being considered are the elimination of nine positions in the Cortez math lab for a savings of $403,839.27, and nine positions in the alternative education program for a reduction of $376,820.66.

Board members also discussed reducing assistant principals’ 12-month contracts to 10-month contracts for a savings of $75,026.17.

Faced with these difficult budget decisions, trustees were quick to voice concerns Monday afternoon over the various cuts they are being forced to consider.

Comer, an opponent of the single bus system, said, “I have small kids, so I really don’t like the single bus system.”

ED-5 representative Dr. Roger Long agreed with Comer, but ED-1 representative Devin Snead pointed out many older students would be driving personal vehicles to school and not riding the bus.

Concerns were raised over funding alternative education programs such as in-school suspension and GEDs for a small number of students at Halifax County Middle School (HCMS) and Halifax County High School (HCHS).

ED-3 representative Kim Farson inquired how many students at HCMS and HCHS use alternative education services saying she realized, “It is a swinging door.”

Director of Academies Dr. Mel Stanley explained 13 students are currently enrolled in the program at the middle school and 14 at the high school who are all GED prep students and not discipline cases.

ED-2 representative Karen Hopkins asked for more information about the Cortez math classes in her search to know how many students were in the program and how much it costs the system.

Several hundred students are enrolled in the program at the middle and high schools combined, Stanley said, while Chief Financial Officer Bill Covington said the school system pays about $45,000 each year to the company for software.

Griles explained Cortez math classes have proven “very beneficial” for remedial students.

“I think they are wonderful programs, and I am against cutting them,” remarked ED-4 representative Joe Gasperini, who added he believes alternative education should be expanded.

He also said is opposed to eliminating the dual bus system saying, “Going to a pure single bus system is a mistake.”

Tempers Flare

Heated emotions spilled over during the Monday afternoon meeting as ED-8 representative Walter Potts and Gasperini found themselves on different sides of the coin concerning an efficiency study and curriculum audit that supervisors are requiring the school board to conduct before handing over $250,000 in the upcoming year’s budget. (See related supervisors’ story)
Gasperini passed out a copy of an email correspondence he had with a group which conducts efficiency studies and curriculum audits.

According to Gasperini, this group has conducted 24 efficiency studies throughout Virginia and is willing to conduct an efficiency study and curriculum audit for $125,000 in Halifax County.

Upset over Gasperini taking it upon himself to represent the school board when contacting the group about the costs of conducting an efficiency study in the county, Potts asked Superintendent Paul Stapleton whether Gasperini’s actions representing the school board were “kosher.”

“That’s not legal I don’t think in the state of Virginia,” responded Stapleton, “and I would have to check with the lawyer…I’m not going to say outright it’s illegal unless I check with your lawyer. I don’t think it’s proper for a board member to be negotiating individually with a company that may be providing services to the school system.”

Potts, directing his statement to the chairman, said, “Mr. Chairman I would like to recommend to you to recommend to Mr. Stapleton that we get an opinion from our attorney on this and see what is correct. If this is correct, then so be it, and if it is not correct then so be it.”

Stapleton said the result of Gasperini’s actions may force the board to exclude this company from being considered as a candidate to conduct the efficiency study.

Gasperini countered he had not negotiated with the company and had just asked questions related to an efficiency study.
“I respectfully submit that I did no such thing as negotiate, I haven’t negotiated at all. What I have done is done what I think an informed person who wants to get all the facts and information would do.

“What I did was contact the Department of Planning and Budget, and I have talked to Mr. Ringer several times and asked him who has done the most studies.

“Also, I looked at the website and contacted the people and asked them what kind of cost would it cost. I asked questions to see how much it would it cost us to do an efficiency study and curriculum audit, but that is certainly not a negotiation. I’m asking a question. There is nowhere I have ever negotiated anything. And the fact of the matter is if the board wanted someone to do it, I happen to have a lot of the information, but I am an individual board member who has a right to ask questions, and I asked this company questions as far as how much it would cost, and it makes sense to call the company and contact the company when they have done 24 studies in Virginia, said Gasperini.

Potts interrupted Gasperini in an exchange with the two trustees talking over top of each other about the efficiency study and whether Gasperini’s correspondence with the company was appropriate for a school board representative.

Potts asked again for the school board attorney to be contacted to render a legal opinion on Gasperini’s actions.

When the school superintendent contacts the attorney, Gasperini asked that all the facts be presented because in the past, in his opinion, the attorney has not had all the facts.

Potts raised his voice at Gasperini saying, “I’m not talking about the past, I’m talking about this. I want a copy of this (email) sent to him so he can see exactly what has transpired.”

Trustee Long said Gasperini also had placed on his desk a copy of the study proposal he received from the company.
“I did not,” Gasperini declared.

Long said, “Well I have the copy.”

At that point, fellow school board member Snead called for a point of order saying board members “were getting off track.”
Pounding his gavel to restore order, Chairman Comer asked Stapleton to check with the attorney in regards to the matter.

At the conclusion of the meeting, board members went into executive session to discuss personnel issues related to the budget, and they emerged reiterating that no decisions will be made until the next school board meeting.