Board pitches for study money

WOODSTOCK – The Board of Supervisors appears likely to give $135,000 to the School Board to study the division’s space needs.

The School Board and Superintendent Jeremy Raley pitched their funding request to supervisors at a work session on Thursday. The discussion at times turned heated as opponents of the request questioned the division’s spending practices and supporters came to Raley’s and the School Board’s defense.

The School Board asked for $35,000 to pay a consultant to adjust the boundaries of the county’s school system – seen as a short-term solution to alleviate overcrowding at some buildings and treat underutilization at others. The School Board plans to pay a consultant $100,000 to perform a long-term master plan for the use of the division’s facilities. The School Board contracted with HBA Architecture and Interior Design Inc., based in Virginia Beach. DeJong-Richter will handle demographic data for the study. Mike Ross, with HBA, attended the work session. No one with DeJong-Ritter could make the meeting.

Chairman David Ferguson, Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley and Supervisors Steve Baker and John R. “Dick” Neese said they would support the request.

“I think it will save this county money in the long run,” Ferguson said.

Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz said they opposed spending more money on studies, arguing that the school division could do most of the work. Bailey and Shruntz also criticized the School Board for not spending money to maintain its facilities, thereby preventing some of the outstanding problems the division now faces.

Neese said he didn’t support the request for the $100,000 at first but then changed his mind once he heard from the School Board and Raley at the work session.

School Board Chairman Richard L. “Rick” Koontz Jr. told supervisors the division faces a time constraint. County Administrator Mary T. Price said supervisors plan to consider the request at its meeting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

The county has not gone through a redistricting in decades, Raley said. The boundary adjustment study would set up new districts. The process would be transparent and public, Raley noted.

“But the bottom line is we know this is going to be a very emotional process and we know that the people have a very vested interest in the process, and having an expert walk us through to ensure we do that and we do it well, it’s going to be critical,” Raley said.

The $35,000 also would include funds to cover the transportation cost associated with adjusting the boundaries and bus routes, Raley said.

The boundary adjustment likely would alleviate overcrowding at two schools but would put three facilities at capacity, Raley said. The long-term study would provide an outline of how the division could best use its existing facilities at least 20 years into the future.

Shruntz accused HBA of having an agenda going into its work that supports the closing of school buildings or constructing new facilities. HBA did work for Campbell County and one option included closing school buildings, consolidating facilities and selling property to pay for new construction. Ross said the community did not go with that option.

Bailey questioned why the School Board would spend money on a consultant that came up with the suggestion of a boundary adjustment when a committee formed to discuss the issue reached the same conclusion earlier. Raley and other supervisors noted that the committee could not agree on one option.

School Board member Kathryn Holsinger said the consultants didn’t bring up closing schools or building new facilities. Rather, the consultants presented options such as year-round schools and looking at moving some grades into other facilities, Holsinger said.

“Dr. Raley has the utmost integrity and I guarantee you he vetted this very well and he has done (it) to the best of his ability and so did the committee from our School Board that chose the firm,” Holsinger said.

“These studies have to stop,” Shruntz chimed in.

Bailey asked if work on the boundary adjustment already had started. Raley said no work had been done because the School Board didn’t have funds to do so. Raley explained to Bailey that a map had been created early on in the process for conversation purposes. However, many more variables need to be factored into the process before they could make any decisions about redistricting, Raley explained.

If supervisors do not approve the request before the end of the year, the School Board could face a tougher time gaining its approval. Richard Walker succeeds Ferguson for the District 3 seat. Walker has been a vocal critic of some of the School Board’s spending practices and has questioned some of the numbers it has used to justify its funding requests. Walker, as supervisor-elect, sat with the board during the work session.

At one point during the work session the discussion focused on the local Head Start program. Walker began to ask a question and Koontz objected to the supervisor-elect participating, saying he thought the meeting was between the two boards.

Koontz put Bailey on the spot when he asked if she thought W.W. Robinson Elementary School was overcrowded. When Bailey did not directly answer the question, Koontz posed it again.

“You know it’s not a good work session if we can’t ask questions and get answers and you’re avoiding that answer every way you can,” Koontz said.

Bailey responded by asking if the school division had money to deal with the space issue. Holsinger said the board was “in desperate shape” with its budget but noted that the boards were not discussing the budget. Bailey argued that the system shouldn’t add pre-kindergarten classes if the division lacks space, a problem it created.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com