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Supes, trustees draw closer on budget plans / March 28, 2019
The Halifax County Board of Supervisors and Halifax County School Board have narrowed a budget gap that once stood in the millions down to about $150,000, although both boards still face decisions on spending priorities they may have to give up to bring the numbers fully into balance.

Members of both boards met Monday in Halifax to hash out their separate budgets — school and county — after starting out the month nearly $3 million apart. The divide over how much local taxpayer money to dedicate to education had threatened to spike the School Board’s plans to raise pay for teachers and staff.

The compromise that seemed to materialize Monday preserves school employee salary hikes, albeit at lesser levels. In return, the School Board shelved its request for more money to spend on major maintenance projects, while the Board of Supervisors may delay land use taxation, a program that would reduce real estate tax bills for county agricultural producers.

Still undecided is the question of whether the Board of Supervisors will enact a real estate tax increase of 1-cent or 2-cents — or split the difference — as previously approved. Earlier this month, supervisors approved a draft budget with a 2-cent tax increase, but the board left the final details subject to change.

“It all gets down to the math at the end of the day,” said ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis, head of the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee. The panel voted Monday to present three tax-and-spend options to the full membership when the board meets next on Monday.

One option, to add a penny onto the county’s real estate rate of 48 cents per $100, would provide enough money to fund school salary increases, but at the likely cost of postponing the proposed land use taxation program, which would partially take the place of defunct ag-forestal tax districts.

The second option, for a 2-cent tax increase, would fund both the school employee pay hikes and land use taxation.

A third possibility is a 1.5 cent tax increase, which would accommodate both priorities but force supervisors to make spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, on items that potentially range from new bleachers for the Mary Bethune Complex gym to a $10,000 thermal imaging drone aircraft for fire department search efforts.

A 2-cent hike was advertised and approved by supervisors following a March 18 public hearing that drew few speakers. Under state law, the Board of Supervisors can decide to lower the approved rate, but it cannot go higher unless members vote to put the budget up for a new public hearing.

Board Chairman Dennis Witt, who took part in the finance committee’s discussions on Monday, offered no predictions on the size of the tax increase that may emerge when the full board meets on Monday.

“I think the committee is going to lay out the options and then the board will have to decide on it. It’s hard to know [what happens] when not everybody was at the [finance] meeting. You don’t know how everybody is going to feel about it.”

Also taking part in the Monday afternoon discussion with the supervisors was Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg and finance director Robert Aylor. On Monday night, it was School Board’s turn to deliberate over budget matters, with Lineburg and Aylor reporting back to trustees with news of the finance committee action.

By a 5-2 vote, trustees approved a trimmed-down school budget that drew opposition from chairman Joe Gasperini and Walter Potts, who both complained the package leaves too many urgent priorities unfunded.

“It’s not the exact budget we wanted, but at the end of the day we have raises for employees and nothing else,” said Lineburg. “If we can get there, I think we can call it a success.”

After initially proposing a bump in local education spending of more than $2 million, the School Board’s request to supervisors had been narrowed down to $300,000 by Monday. The finance committee agreed to provide half that amount, $150,000, but it also made another major change to the school budget: reversing an earlier recommendation to cut the county’s contribution to schools by $425,000. The net change of $575,000 closed a substantial portion of a school budget deficit that, even after reworking, exceeded a million dollars.

By Monday, the shortfall had shrunk further with the trustees’ decision to drop a request for $100,000 for major school maintenance work. With other identified savings in the cost of employee benefits, school officials were able to present a budget request that sought only $300,000 in additional local funding, provided the Board of Supervisors maintains the current level of county spending the school system.

The answer from the finance committee: level funding, plus $150,000 more, leaving the School Board with the task of making one final round of cuts to its budget roughly equal to $150,000.

“We’ll have to work our way through it. Especially when you get down to the end, everything is hard,” said Lineburg.

To get closer to the Board of Supervisors’ budget target, trustees scaled back their plans to offer higher pay to teachers and non-instructional personnel. After initially proposing to raise teacher salaries by 3 percent and add a step to the step pay scale, the School Board voted Monday to revise those numbers to 2 percent in salary and a step increase. The combination works out to an increase of roughly 3.4 percent, said Lineburg — the same hike in teacher salaries under the current budget, which runs out June 30.

Non-instructional support personnel — school secretaries, maintenance and custodial workers, bus drivers and administrators — will receive a straight 3 percent pay hike, with no changes to their step pay scale. Reforming the step pay ladder for support staff was a School Board priority going into budget talks, now cast aside.

“Next year we’ll try to get there,” said Lineburg.

While the latest round of budget revisions left trustees disappointed with a lack of movement on longstanding priorities, the School Board will be getting enough local money to fulfill a state requirement for a 5 percent teacher pay raise over the two-year budget biennium. Had Halifax County not met that target, it could have been required to return more than a million dollars to state coffers, the amount provided by the Department of Education to fund the 5 percent teacher raises.

Witt called the supervisors’ $150,000 increase in school funding over current levels “a pretty strong contribution …. It’s more than enough for them [the trustees] to get the million from the state.”

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Remember Mr. Witt’s comment that it was a heavy lift!! It was a “cop out” by Mr. Witt!! It is now obvious that he and his colleagues were playing word/number games when he issued his “cop out” statement!!!

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