PASS grades supervisors on education support

Today marks the last day of school in Shenandoah County, and for the second year in a row, the Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools has issued an end-of-year report card to grade county supervisors on their support for education.

PASS graded supervisors on an A to F scale – the highest an A+ and the lowest an F – based on categories like a willingness to visit local schools, a news release explained.

One of PASS’s primary missions is making sure parents and education supporters know where elected officials stand on school funding, said PASS founder J. Daniel Walsh, of Edinburg. His wife, Cynthia Walsh, is a member of the School Board.

“This,” he said, “is designed to provide an easily understandable way for parents and other education supporters and others in the community, to understand how their elected officials voted on issues related to school funding.”

The release stated, “In 2016, The Shenandoah County School Board approved an operating budget that would have provided $64,087,509 in funds for Shenandoah County Public schools, $27,786,961 of which would have come from local sources. After a contentious process, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to fund local education at a level $2.6 million less than the School Board’s budget.”

PASS issued these grades to supervisors:
• Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese, District 1: B, up from last year’s C-.
• Supervisor Steve Baker, District 2: A+, same as last year.
• Chairman Richard Walker, District 3: D. This was his first year graded.
• Supervisor Cindy Bailey, District 4: F, same as last year.
• Supervisor Marsha Shruntz, District 5: F, down from last year’s D-.
• Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley, District 6: A-, same as last year.

“We are concerned that some of our county elected officials are selling our kids short,” the release stated. “We don’t want to go another year without meeting essential needs in our school division, and we do not want to see any more good teachers leave for surrounding school divisions.”

This is the second year for the report card, and Walsh said parents have been appreciative of how the report card details the educational support of each supervisor.

“Parenting is busy stuff, and when you’re running from soccer practice to dance class, you can’t always keep on top of local public policy affecting education,” he said. “This gives them a succinct view into where their supervisors stand.”

He added, “Rating and grading elected officials is a common practice used by advocacy groups to help their members understand the positions of government officials. Groups as diverse as the NRA, the League of Conservation Voters, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among many others, issue such ratings.”

Supervisor Steve Baker, scoring the highest among the supervisors, said he is “humbled and honored” for his recognition.

“I just try to be very, very supportive of the education system because the kids are the future of this county,” he said.

He said he tries to be visible at the schools and has toured all of the county schools within the last year to show his support and to better understand what is needed throughout the division.

“You learn a lot of things about how education has changed drastically since I was in school,” he said. “You just want to make sure that the teachers have the resources to be able to teach kids in today’s environment.”

Supervisor Cindy Bailey said her failing grade was not unexpected.

“I advocate holding the line on the budget. I attend school functions and have for years,” she said. “I have lived up to my campaign promises. Asking questions and holding those spending tax dollars accountable for how those dollars are spent is one and I will continue to do so.”

Supervisor John “Dick” Neese said he is OK with his grade and believes the School Board needs to spend its funds more efficiently.

“I would like to see the School Board come up with some thoughts on how to do more with the same amount of funding,” he said, “Maybe not offer as many electives, larger class sizes.”

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz said that her voting record reflects the way the majority of her constituents ask her to vote.

“I do not vote to raise taxes, but I am willing to look for ways to cut spending,” she said. “I do not support (a) free county- or school-funded health insurance for employee-only program.”

In regard to her attendance at school and county events, she added, “I am always happy and willing to work on constituent issues, attend Board of Supervisor meetings, work sessions, budget sessions and committee meetings. County and business invitations are numerous. My attendance at Central High School consultant meeting(s) often leave me overbooked.”

The PASS release also issued the following comments:

Dick Neese, District 1: B

“Though never an opponent of school funding, Mr. Neese had historically resisted some of the efforts of the more enthusiastic school supporters on the board. However, in response to the election of a block of school funding skeptics to the BOS, he has stepped up his support for funding of local education, although not quite to the level of Mr. Baker or Mr. Helsley. He expressed his support for a higher level of funding than was ultimately allocated to the schools for the 2016-2017 year. He has toured the schools regularly, and consults with administrators, parents and teachers.”

Steve Baker, District 2: A+

“Mr. Baker is the strongest supporter of education funding on the board. During the budget process, he advocated increased investment in education, and he initially refused to vote for the 2016-2017 school budget, arguing that it short-changes our schools and our kids. Only when it became clear that there was no way to obtain majority support for a higher funding level did he agree to support it. He has toured all ten schools in the last year.”

Rich Walker, District 3: D

“Mr. Walker was the swing vote this year. On a board of 6 Supervisors, measures generally need 4 votes to pass. With Supervisors Helsley, Neese and Baker supporting some degree of increased funding and Supervisors Bailey and Shruntz supporting deep cuts, the ultimate budget was going to be limited to what Mr. Walker would support. In the end, Mr. Walker supported level funding for the schools. However, he did not support the additional cuts proposed by Supervisors Bailey and Shruntz. He has not toured the schools in his five months in office; we hope that will change in the future.”

Cindy Bailey, District 4: F

“Ms. Bailey supported a tax rate which, if adopted, would have required an additional $1.2 million in cuts from the overall county budget below what was approved. That tax rate was not adopted, and we cannot know how much of those additional cuts would have come from the schools if it had been. However, given that the school system is by far the largest item in the county budget, it seems reasonable to believe that it would have received the largest share of the resulting cuts. Ms. Bailey ultimately opposed the budget as spending too much on schools and other services. In more than two years in office, Ms. Bailey has never toured the schools.”

Marsha Shruntz, District 5: F

“Ms. Shruntz’ position on the budget was the same as Ms. Bailey’s, and she too opposed the final budget as excessively generous. Ms. Shruntz was an outlier among Supervisors in one respect: in addition to the other cuts she supported, she offered a motion to end the county’s contribution toward the health insurance of teachers and other county employees. No other Supervisor seconded the motion, so it was never put to a vote. Ms. Shruntz toured Sandy Hook Elementary over a year ago; she has not received any tours before or since.”

Conrad Helsley, District 6: A-

Dr. Helsley served ably as Chairman of the BOS during the budget process; however, he was constrained by the political realities of the board he chairs. He made clear early in the process that he supported a higher level of education funding than the process was likely to produce. He tried to persuade the other Supervisors to support additional funds, but was unsuccessful. He has visited the schools, though not in the current year.

On The Net
• PASS online: http://www.shencopass.org.
• Board of Supervisors: http://shenandoahcountyva.us/bos.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com