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Budget hearing draws a blank / March 28, 2018
No one came forward to speak on the Mecklenburg County school budget at a public hearing Monday night in Boydton — to the consternation of at least one trustee.

Looking around the room, South Hill trustee Gavin Honeycutt said, “I’m shocked this room isn’t full. This is a prime opportunity for parents to come out and be vested in their kids’ education.”

Trustees will approve their budget request at a special called meeting today at 6 p.m. The budget then goes to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors, whose members can fund the request in part or full.

The School Board is seeking $49,736,423 for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which runs from July-June 2019.

Of that sum, $43,411,563 is for operating expenses, $2.3 million is for school food service, nearly $405,000 is for textbooks, $807,023 is for debt service on South Hill Elementary School and other assets, and $2.8 million is anticipated from Washington to pay for federal programs.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said the budget request is approximately $2 million higher than what the school division received for the current 2018 fiscal year.

“There is nothing hidden with this budget [request]. We are presenting what we think we need,” said Nichols.

The school budget was duly advertised prior to the public meeting, in accordance with state law.

Of the $43.4 million in operating costs, $32 million is for instruction (teacher salaries and programs), $4.2 million is for transportation, nearly $2 million is allocated to administration costs, $3 million is for operations and maintenance of existing facilities, and $2.5 million is for technology.

Board Chairman Brent Richey sought assurances that programs for gifted students would not be cut even if the budget is not fully funded. “It’s easy to cut gifted programs because people think they’ll [students in the program] will be okay. Don’t confuse gifted with privileged. Gifted students come from all walks of life and may not be okay if these programs are cut.”

Nichols said, in response, this budget is reflective of where he “wants to see the schools go” from a curriculum standpoint. He said this “is an investment in the students [and] an investment in the economic fut ure of [Mecklenburg] County. It may require a tax increase.”

Vice chairman Wanda Bailey asked Nichols to consider establishing an honor code for students. “Future employers want to know their employees won’t steal them blind,” she said.

Nichols assured her he was considering mandating a honor code, especially for students who may participate in job shadowing or mentoring programs.

Lindell Palmer asked for the budget to include funding for school psychologists. Students with disciplinary issues learn nothing from their time in an alternative education classroom, according to Palmer.

“We need to get at the root cause of why students are behaving the way they are,” he said. Palmer received assurances from Nichols that the budget, as proposed, includes money for several behavioral specialists at the elementary schools.

An issue that might have been brought out by speakers involves the suggestion by members of the Board of Supervisors that the school division choose between funding for new and improved programs for the students or new buildings. Instead, Nichols addressed the issue saying, “We need both now. We can’t wait for three years when the new school is built. This is a unique opportunity for us to build a new facility that focuses on the profile of a graduate,” the new standard established by the Virginia Department of Education.

“The state is looking to us as we will be the first new facility built to accommodate their Profile of a Graduate,” said Nichols.

He is referring to the Virginia Department of Education’s redesign of the high school experience that focuses on the knowledge, skills, experiences and attributes that students must attain to be successful in college and/or the work force and to be “life ready” in the 21st century.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the trustees met with Billy Upton and Teran Mitchell, architects with Ballou Justice and Upton Architects who will be spearheading the design of Mecklenburg County’s new school facilities.

Upton, who owns a home on Lake Gaston, said he’s “proud to be part of this project [and] impressed with the Board of Supervisors. In so many areas, the school divisions have to fight for their facilities. Supervisors here have been a lot more gracious than is usually the case.”

Even though the School Board is moving forward with their budget request, they are aware that the state has yet to pass its budget. Adjustments might have to be made once state funding levels are set.

The General Assembly will return to Richmond on April 11 to work out a budget compromise.

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