By Brandon Martin
Members of the Henry County School Board are feeling “blind-sighted” after the Board of Supervisors decided to move forward with County Administrator Tim Hall’s decision to use part of the funds gained from the most recent sales tax increase to cover school debt rather than for new construction or major renovations of schools.
The county estimates that approximately $5.2 million will be generated by the one percent tax increase.
The budget approved by the county included a recommendation “that $2.6 million be used to pay towards existing school construction debt, and the remaining $2.6 million be set aside for the school system’s use on current and future construction/renovation needs.”
Hall said the decision to split the amount was to address the $2.6 million gap after the state stopped distributing the state recordation tax to the county.
Feeling it was inappropriate to take funds from other agencies, like law enforcement and public safety to address the gap for schools, Hall said it was the best option available.
“It’s not something we want to do but knowing that a gap of that size” could only be made up with increased taxes or spending cuts in other areas, “we didn’t want to burden law enforcement or public safety,” Hall said.
Dr. Merris Stambaugh, of the Collinsville District, said he was unaware that this decision was under Hall’s purview.
“I was apparently misunderstanding about the one percent sales tax that Henry County voted for itself,” Stambaugh said. “I was under the impression that this board was going to be the ones making decisions about how that money was spent.”
He asked for further clarification from school administrators and Mike Gardner, the school board attorney.
Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said that Hall originally presented the tax increase proposal to the school board in October 2020, quoting him as saying the school board “would be solely responsible” for the revenue gained from the increase.
“At that point, we were told that that was the understanding that the board would do it, but further along the line somewhere down the road, Mr. Hall realized they could use the money to bridge the gap in the county budget,” Strayer said. “At that point, that’s when we talked to Mr. Gardner about that.”
Gardner said the statute that allowed for the increase in sales tax limits the use of the funds to new construction or major renovations.
“The hard question is does that apply to debt service for construction projects that were completed prior to the referendum passing, even though it was completed close to it,” Gardner said, adding that Gloucester County is currently awaiting a decision on the same matter from Attorney General Mark Herring.
“Until we get that opinion from the attorney general, you cannot conclude that the money can be used for debt service when that debt was incurred prior to the passage of the referendum because we don’t know if that is going to be defined as new or major renovations,” Gardner said.
While that question is yet to be answered, Gardner said that the county could use the money for purposes without the school board’s approval.
“Nothing in the statute requires school board approval,” Gardner said. “It is county money raised through their taxing authority and the school board doesn’t have taxing authority. But that doesn’t change the representations that were given.”
Teddy Martin II, of the Reed Creek District, said he has been actively involved with the state board on the issue.
“I can’t rationalize that a school approved in 2016, built in 2017 and opened in 2018 applies to a referendum that we adopted in 2019, passed in 2020 and money that is coming in 2021 forward,” Martin said. “That’s supplanting to me, and it was very clear when they came to us and made representations that this was going to be solely your decision to campaign for it.”
Martin said he also was struck by the fact that the school board wasn’t even consulted first.
“To me the problem also is that’s what you said, and you didn’t come to us and say as a team or collaborative effort ‘here is the situation, how can we work together,’” Martin added.
Chairman Thomas Auker, of the Blackberry District, said he had a private discussion with Hall following the decision.
“I told him that I felt that his remarks in October kind of blind-sighted our board,” Auker said. Hall “assured me that he did not lie but that he had to make that decision because he had to balance the budget.”
“My response to Mr. Hall would be that even if he did not lie, he did not correct his remarks to this board. He did not include this board,” Martin said.
Given that the board “is one of the lowest funded,” Martin said he chose to abstain from adopting the school budget for fiscal year 2022.
The rest of the board voted in favor of adopting the budget as presented.
In addition to not receiving the full amount from the sales tax increase, David Scott, assistant superintendent for operations and administrative services, said the division received less from the county than what was requested overall.
“There is a reduction in local funding. We had requested $507,000,” he said. “What the board of supervisors has approved is $448,345 over level funding. There were no changes in the local required effort but there is a change in the local leeway funding, or the discretionary funding.”
To account for the difference, Scott said the Instruction Fund was reduced by $50,000 and the technology fund was cut by $9,000.
“During the preceding months, we had talked about a GoTech initiative and expanding it from Laurel Park to Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School,” Scott said. “For reasons beyond our own budgeting purposes, that program is not going to be expanded there right now. That is money that we would have had as extra flexibility in the budget, but we are able to do without at the moment.”
Additionally, Scott said the reduction in technology will be targeted for renting and leasing equipment.
“We are hoping that any adjustment we need to make there can be taken care of by the CARES Act or ESSER Part III funding,” he said. “The priority for our budget this year was to try to capture the compensation adjustments for our employees. We’ve been able to do that so that was not sacrificed in this minor adjustment.”
While the division received increases in its accounts for Standards of Quality, incentives and lottery funds, it had a $1.2 million cut to discretionary spending from the county.
According to data from a comparison of expenditures per pupil by local governments for regular school operations between FY 2004 and FY 2020, the county ranks second to last in local per pupil funding.
In FY 2020, Henry County spent $1,734.02 per student. Compared to surrounding localities, Martinsville spent $3,366.14 per student and Patrick County spent $2,148.15. The average of all of the school districts was $5,342.77. Henry County only spent $105.12 more than the minimum.
In other matters, the school board:
*Recognized numerous students with awards.
*Recognized Strayer as a Superintendent of the Year for 2020-2021.
*Heard proposed revisions to school board policies and regulations.
*Adjusted summer work hours for all maintenance, transportation, central office, and other twelve-month employees to a four-day work week, Monday through Thursday, beginning May 28 through August 6, 2021.
*Approved the purchase of interactive boards from Clinton Learning under the RFP # 16-06203-A177 and awarded RFP # 21-04293-A241 to Clinton Learning to purchase interactive panels with the option to renegotiate and extend the contract for four sequential 1-year terms starting July 1, 2021.
*Approved the purchase of Apple devices, software, and accessories for staff pending availability of year-end funds and/or FY2022 Technology Budget.
*Approved and appropriated the 2021-22 Special Education Annual Plan/Part B Flow-Through Application and Section 619 Preschool Grant Application.
*Approved the transfer requests of $175,000 from the “Pupil Transportation” category to the “Instruction” category and $140,000 from the “Administration, Attendance, and Health” category to the “Facilities” “category. The requests will have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.
*Approved the bonus for employees and forwarded the appropriation request of $145,031.04 from the Transportation Budget to the School Nutrition budget to the Board of Supervisors.
*Approved the proposal for Stop-Loss on health insurance coverage with Sun life for FY22 starting July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022.
*Awarded a $197,700 change order for a contract with Steve Martin’s Trenching, Inc.
*Awarded a $549,850 bid to Daniel Builders, LLC from Danville.
*Awarded a contract for custodial services to SSC Services for Education of Knoxville, Tennessee.
*Agreed to purchase eight 65 passenger buses and two 35 passenger special needs buses from Kingmor Supply.