The Clarke County Board of Supervisors discussed concerns on Tuesday about funding and performance under the tenure of Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy. The Supervisors discussed social and economic conditions in Clarke County that make school funding increases unlikely in the foreseeable future and one Supervisor stopped just short of calling for the Superintendent’s firing.
“If the County Administrator did what the Superintendent of schools is doing – working to cause divisions among the school board and not supporting them all equally – I’d fire him” said White Post Supervisor Pete Dunning. “What he’s doing is divisive and wrong.”
Dunning’s remarks referenced a recent Clarke County School Board planning meeting in which School Board members convened a special session to develop goals for its final few months in office. When one School Board member, Robina Bouffault (White Post) attempted to add an in-depth discussion of student performance, vocational programs and advanced education programs in relation to trimming school operating costs to the agenda, Bouffault was blocked by other School Board members.
Bouffault has also recently led a public campaign criticizing Murphy’s leadership of the Clarke County
“Student scores have gone down under Dr. Murphy’s leadership,” Dunning said. “The schools have too much high-paid administration and they’re the ones responsible for poor student grades, not the Board of Supervisors.”
Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors’ work session discussions were a rehash of concerns that any additional funding requests from new soon-to-be-elected Clarke County School Board would only be possible through a tax hike, a move that the Supervisors appear unwilling to consider.
Dunning’s comments came after a bleak school funding fiscal report presented by Joint Administrative Services director Tom Judge. Judge said that although the coming CCPS fiscal year will be helped by the addition of approximately $480K in one-time state funding, the Commonwealth’s overall funding for Virginia public schools has declined with no immediate prospects for budgetary improvement on the horizon.
“The state has added back $360K from the jobs fund plus an additional $120K of one-time money,” Judge told the Supervisors. “Even so we’re still at about $1M less than the funding level from 2007.”
Supervisor Dunning used Judge’s budgetary briefing to voice his concerns about future school budget increase requests being required to improve student performance.
“I had a call this morning from a School Board member who said that you had done a very good job in a diplomatic way of saying that things are going to be very tight next year,” Dunning said to Judge. “And with the Superintendent flinging his hands in all directions – he’s had a three year drop as far as grades are concerned and I think that what you are going to see is [School Board] coming in here and saying that you’re not giving us enough money, you’ve underfunded us – that here we are with low SOL’s, low test scores and the only good school in the whole system is Boyce Elementary School and it’s all because of money.”
“But the real truth,” Dunning continued “is it’s all because the Superintendent, in my opinion, came in here with a very good sales pitch and has been a failure. And I want to put that on the record. I don’t have very much confidence in this guy. He talks a good game but when you get down to the facts he’s going to raise holy Hell because he’s underfunded next year. And he’s going to say that that’s why the school scores are down and that’s why we’re in trouble and so forth. And I think that the public should learn that they’ve got, in my opinion, a questionable character at the top running this operation. I think that he has great difficulty in cutting people and getting down to the meat of the situation.”
As part of a recent budget deal to provide a one-time salary bonus to Clarke County Public School employees, the Supervisors required that the School Board stipulate that there were no better uses for the funds. The move was a clear message that future school funding requests would face tough fiscal scrutiny by the Supervisors due to challenging economic conditions.
Supervisor David Weiss (Buckmarsh) said that taxpayers need to face the reality that the County cannot continue to provide the same level of services without increasing taxes.
“Whoever comes in and asks for more money, what would the citizens have us do? Would they have us raise their taxes? We’ve cut our expenses at the County level as far as we can. In my mind the revenue is not coming in because the economy is what it is and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. So I’m not sure what people would have us do.”
Weiss continued, “To me there are only two choices; you either raise taxes or you hold the line on what we are doing. We’re doing the best that we can with what we have and that’s just the way it is.”
“What is it, 15% or 20% of people in our County have children in our school system?” Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Russell) interjected.
“I got it from a School Board member this morning who said that it was closer to 85%,” said Dunning.
“I’m not sure where you would go with kind of a statement,” Supervisor Michael Hobert (Berryville) responded to Byrd.
“Well, I’m just trying to think about David’s [Weiss] comment,” Byrd replied. “What does the County wish us to do as a whole?
“My answer to that is they wish us to do what we’re doing,” Weiss responded. “The people that talk to me are satisfied and they understand the issues that we are facing. Maybe they’re not thrilled that Social Services isn’t getting enough money or that the schools aren’t getting enough money but they seem to understand that we’ve budgeted these things appropriately with our revenue and that we’re all committed, particularly in this year, not to raise taxes and I think that will be an ongoing trend.”
Weiss continued; “There’s going to be a point in our society where we have to accept less in services from our county governments and other governments and we are going to have to do more on our own. Part of the problem in school systems is that parents want their children educated, which is reasonable and expected, but I’m not sure that it was ever intended that there would be no personal money put in aside from what came from the tax rolls into public education. Way back they tried to put a book fee in and that was turned down by public uproar. There’s going to have to be a shift where people put more of their own money in to meet some of these needs that can’t be met on an overall tax basis.”
“We all have to pay a little bit more for the services that we provide,” Weiss said. “That’s my personal opinion.”
Barbara Byrd recounted that a book fee was in place as a child in the Clarke County Public School system when she was a child. Byrd said that she and her classmates spent one full class period dedicated to covering books with paper to preserve the books for future classmates.
“Is there any way that we can check to see how many people have been laid off in our County, how many people are out of work and how many are worried about losing their jobs at this present time or being downgraded to a part-time position?” Byrd asked.
“We have 4.9% unemployment,” replied Hobert.
“4.9% in our County?” Byrd replied. “Now, that’s out of work?”
“Your point, too, about the covering of the books,” Hobert replied. “There are a lot of teachers and people who contribute so that children can have school supplies. A lot of the supplies that are used in schools are not paid for by government, they are paid for by teachers, by PTA’s. So there is an effort by the entire community to subsidize this important function of educating our children.”
“Although it may not be where a lot of people would like it to be per pupil, the bottom line, adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending has been going up. Not a lot, but it’s been going up,” said Supervisor John Staelin (Millwood). “In actual dollars it has gone up more dramatically, but adjusted for inflation it has been going up. On the state’s side, my view is that it’s tough for them, they have got to cut. My biggest objection is that they don’t admit what they’re doing. They don’t tell people ‘We’re cutting this and forcing this unto localities’. They act as if they have been so smart and managed through the crisis. What the state has done is gone into pension funds which are eventually going to come back and hit localities and the school boards.”
“It’s those kinds of things that they’ve done where they haven’t been up front with people about what’s going on,” Staelin said. “And that’s my objection with the state. I just wish that they would fess up and say ‘We’re cutting this and we’re sorry. It’s tough all over’ but they don’t do that.”
David Weiss concluded by saying that he didn’t feel like it was his place to criticize Dr. Murphy or the School Board.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of all that he’s doing, but I don’t think that it’s my place to say whether he’s doing it right or wrong. It seems to me that he’s working hard and if the School Board doesn’t agree with the decisions that he puts forth then that’s what they are there for – to point him in different directions.”
“In my opinion he is bad news for Clarke County,” Dunning retorted.
“One last thing, you have to think about the future,” said Byrd. “[County Administrator] David Ash compares to the Superintendent of Schools. He takes direction from his board. He does not tell his board what to do, he only advises them because knows the procedures.”