By Callie Hietala
The Henry County School Board voted last Thursday to allocate $1 million from its CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds to the Henry County Board of Supervisors for its broadband expansion initiative and to formally request the return of $2.6 million in sales tax revenue.
Henry County Public Schools Director of Communications Monica Hatchett said the contribution to the broadband initiative would help make internet access a reality for all students and staff members in the school system.
The vote came at the board’s public hearing on its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which was presented to the Henry County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The motion was made by board member Francis Zehr, of the Ridgeway District. He told Superintendent Sandy Strayer, “it has come to my attention that the county administration has asked you if the board would contribute $1 million to their broadband initiative.”
Strayer confirmed that the request had been made. “They did talk about us contributing funds if they are able to secure funds, and they would also put in funds,” she said.
Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner said the county’s broadband expansion initiative has been in the works since at least 2020, when a broadband planning team was formed. In July 2021, the county joined with the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, Franklin County, and Patrick County to apply for a Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant to fund broadband.
Wagoner said $33,571,073 was received from the VATI grant, and an additional $61,794,113 was leveraged from Appalachian Power and RiverStreet Networks. The grant, he said, requires a local match of $3,621,000.
The funding will provide fiber to homes and businesses in approximately 3,600 locations in Henry County that do not currently have broadband access.
Ultimately, Wagoner said, the goal “will be to have as many partners on board as possible to expand the breadth and the depth of the broadband project.”
With proper funding in place, Wagoner said the initiative can expand further, including bringing fiber to areas that have access to the internet, but not good-quality internet. “Other components will likely include efforts to narrow the digital divide, promote job training in the field of fiber optics and networking, and address affordability.”
Strayer explained that funding the request would mean amending the school division’s current CARES funding, which would likely mean cutting into the division’s capital project fund.
Hatchett later said that, though the contribution to the broadband initiative will likely “dictate the need to reprioritize capital projects for the school division,” the “capital projects list that we maintain is a broad list that has fluid timelines based on funding” which has been reprioritized at various points in the past. So, while high need projects will likely still move forward, “a medium priority project may wait another year to ensure that we can do our part in making internet access for our families a reality.”
Zehr’s initial motion, seconded by Elizabeth Durden, of the Collinsville District, was to amend the division’s CARES funding to give the county the requested amount, on the condition that a third entity also contribute its share of funds toward the initiative and “contingent upon them returning the $2.6 million dollars in sales tax revenue.”
Last April, in a measure approved by voters, the county levied an additional 1 percent sales tax to help fund school construction and improvement projects.
Though the section of the Code of Virginia allowing for the tax increase specified that “revenues from this tax shall be used solely for capital projects for new construction or major renovation of schools,” the county and its board of supervisors chose to allocate some of the funds to pay down debt from previous school construction and improvement projects.
In December, then-Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion stating that the revenues from the additional tax are to be used to fund capital projects for new construction or major renovation of schools and not for debt mitigation.
Vice chairman Teddy Martin said he was concerned about combining the two issues into one motion.
“The $2.6 million shouldn’t have anything to do with the $1 million request. They should do that because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of, ‘you do this for me, I do that for you.’ I don’t have an objection to helping them with the broadband initiative, but I have a concern with the impression that these items are linked.”
Board member Benjamin Gravely, of the Iriswood District, agreed with Martin.
“It’s almost like we’re bargaining. That money from the tax, in my opinion, that money belongs to us.” He pointed out that most of the board members campaigned for the tax increase. “That money is owed. They should give us our money. I don’t have a problem supporting the board on broadband, but to use that as a bargaining chip, I don’t think it’s right.”
“All I’m trying to do is cooperate with the governing body,” said Zehr. “I served on the governing body for 16 years, so I know a little bit about it. They’ve got a tough situation. It’s nothing to do with bargaining as far as I’m concerned.”
Ultimately, Zehr separated his motions, one to give the supervisors the requested funding for broadband contingent upon the board receiving additional funding for the project, and another to send a letter to the county requesting the return of the $2.6 million in sales tax revenue.
Both motions were unanimously approved.
“My only hope is that … they will be more cooperative than they have been,” Martin said.