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Nelson supervisors, county administration clash over school board's increased budget request

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Nelson Courthouse new 2

The Nelson County courthouse. Nelson County’s board of supervisors recently voted to lower the county’s real estate tax rate and to equalize personal property tax rates in the upcoming fiscal year.

The Nelson County Board of Supervisors held a preliminary discussion on the school board’s proposed budget recently, and conversations over whether to fund a significant increase in the schools’ 2023 request became heated, bringing out opposing viewpoints between supervisors and county administration.

In a March 14 letter to the board, the Nelson County School Board and interim Superintendent Joseph Cox submitted a $32.8 million budget request, a 19% increase from the schools’ 2022 approved budget of $27.5 million.

“That request is more than historic,” County Administrator Steve Carter said at the March 24 meeting.

“The budget requires a contribution of Local Funds in the amount of $19,068,061 to balance,” Cox wrote the board.

The county’s 2021-2022 contribution to the schools for operations is $15.6 million and $164,935 for school nurses for a total of $15.8 million, according to Finance Director Candy McGarry.

McGarry also said the county board approved $704,896 in additional funding for school capital improvement projects in fiscal year 2021-2022.

Carter first presented the board with a summary of the General Assembly’s pending school budget proposals. The document shows the estimated state and local funding the district would receive if versions from former Gov. Ralph Northam, the Senate or the House are adopted, using information available through the Virginia Department of Education’s Direct Aid Payment Calculation Templates.

Carter demonstrated that for Nelson County Schools’ estimated 2023 enrollment of 1,454 students, the county will be required to fund the schools $9 million with Northam’s budget, $9.1 million with the Senate’s budget and $8.9 with the House’s budget, for an estimated increase from its 2022 required contribution to the schools of $1.4 million, $1.5 million and $1 million respectively.

Nelson County schools would receive an estimated increase of $2 million in state funding if Northam’s budget is adopted, $2.1 million if the Senate’s and $531,943 if the House budget is adopted.

Carter said the schools’ budget increase “is all salary driven.”

He then presented the board with data comparing Nelson County’s local per pupil funding and state ranking compared to 18 other Central Virginia area school districts.

“In fiscal year 21, of 130 school divisions, we ranked 102,” Carter said.

According to Carter’s document, which cites Schooldigger.com, a website that calculates school district rankings based on test scores released by the Virginia Department of Education, Nelson ranks 102 out of 132 Virginia school districts. Albemarle County Public Schools rank 31 and Charlottesville City Schools rank 86.

“Local per pupil funding, only Charlottesville and Albemarle County are greater than us,” Carter said.

According to Carter’s document, and the Virginia Department of Education, Nelson spent $8,848 in fiscal year 2019-2020 per pupil. Albemarle spent $10,206 and the city of Charlottesville spent $13,286.

Carter also addressed Nelson County’s 2020-2021 starting teacher salary. Among the 19 Central Virginia schools districts Carter lists, Nelson’s is the greatest at $50,832. Charlottesville’s starting teacher salary ranks second at $50,007, and Albemarle County third at $48,298, according to the Virginia Department of Education’s teacher salary report

“The problem, I think, to do this, is that the salary structure as it exists for first-year teachers is high. If you take a look at the teachers that we have, we’ve been losing the more experienced teachers because that doesn’t hold across the board once they start spending time with the schools,” East District Supervisor Ernie Reed said.

Reed added about 60% of Nelson County teachers are recent hires.

The school board has proposed to adjust the salaries of teacher who have been with the schools for 20 to 30 years to meet the 25th highest salaries in the state, in addition to a 5% salary increase for SOQ, or Standards of Quality, funded positions.

Carter said he had spoken with Appomattox County Administrator Susan Adams, who told him her county does not fund the schools beyond what is required by the state, compared to the $8 million Nelson County currently funds the schools that is beyond its required amount. Carter then pointed to Appomattox County Public Schools’ reported ranking of 46. His document also lists Appomattox County’s 2019-2020 local per pupil funding at $2,580.

“What do you attribute that to?” Reed asked Carter.

“The schools are getting overfunded, that’s what I attribute it to,” Carter said.

Reed said Carter couldn’t use that conclusion to explain what happened. Carter added the schools are underperforming.

“So you’re faulting the schools for that?” Reed asked.

“Well, whose fault is it?” Carter responded. “It’s the schools’ fault.”

“See, that’s what infuriates me about you sometimes,” South District Supervisor Skip Barton said to Carter.

Barton began to reference past decisions that have impacted the schools’ current request. Carter interrupted, saying events of 20 years ago don’t count and the board should instead consider the present.

“You say it counts if I say it counts. You’re working for me, remember that,” Barton responded.

“Not for very long,” Carter said.

Carter, who has served his position the past 24 years, recently announced his retirement effective July 31.

The board returned to the question of schools’ proposed salary increases, with Reed urging the board to consider the reasoning behind the request for the pay hikes.

“There is a reason and I’ve thought about this reason for a decade,” Barton said.

He told the board the current situation could be explained by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Bill and the implementation of standardized testing.

He said he didn’t fault the lawmakers or tests themselves but, “the consequences for the students not doing well on that test were draconian, and the administrations in schools began to put pressure on teachers and pressure on themselves to increase their test scores. What that did was undermine the professionality of the teachers.”

Barton added these measures changed the criteria for evaluating teachers and the methods of instruction and eroded teacher morale, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Something needs to be done to make teachers feel that what they do for our society is paramount,” Barton said, adding increasing salaries was a way to accomplish this.

“It gets back to the taxpayer. What can the taxpayer afford to pay?” North District Supervisor Tommy Harvey asked.

Board Chair Jesse Rutherford told the board $3.4 million, the amount the county would need to increase its funding to the schools to meet their deficit, equates to $0.10 in tax revenue.

West District Supervisor David Parr said “We’re looking at a less than 2% increase in our county budget, right? And they’re looking at a 20% increase in theirs. Well that’s a no-brainer,” but added he wanted to see if the school board’s 2020-2021 request was unusually low because of the pandemic, and how its current funding request compares to those of the last five years.

The board continued its meeting to March 29 and will hold its regular meeting April 12.

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