Supervisors graded on educational support

Shenandoah County supervisors Steve Baker and Conrad Helsley scored well and supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz flunked in the opinion of a local organization that advocated for more funding for Shenandoah County Public Schools in the recently approved budget.

The evaluation by PASS — the name stands for Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools — came in the form of an end-of-year report card grade for each supervisor: A+ for Baker of District 2; A- for Helsley of District 6; B+ for  John R. “Dick” Neese of District 1; C- for Richard Walker of District 3;  and F for Bailey of District 4 and Shruntz of District 5.

The grades for Baker, Helsley, Bailey and Shruntz are unchanged from those they received last year. PASS gave Neese a B last year and Walker a D.

A news release accompanying the report cards explained that the grades were based on each supervisor’s show of support for public education in categories such as funding and willingness to visit local schools.

Bailey said she believes the grade is meaningless.

“PASS is simply a political lobbyist group formed to get more money for the schools, not to improve education. Anyone who doesn’t give them a blank check is against education,” she added. “PASS’ claim that I have never been in the schools is perpetuated by the editors of The Northern Virginia Daily and simply false. PASS and the School Board’s priorities this past year were change boundaries and calendar, not use funding to improve school environment. I would like to see PASS lobby to discontinue SOL’s that disrupts, confuses and waste time for the entire educational process. I called for re-allocation of funding, not a cut.”

Walker found PASS’ approach to education disingenuous and based on political motivations, rather than fact or analysis. He agreed with Bailey’s contention that the grades are based on whether someone writes a blank check, rather than the nature and delivery of effective educational content.

“Anyone willing to require accountability is downgraded for that approach and branded anti-education. Their purpose appears to be to sow the seeds of dissatisfaction rather than provide constructive support for the education of Shenandoah County students,” he added. “I feel strongly about education and have worked in education on many levels since 1973. I will continue to work toward improving our local schools through both working with Shenandoah County Public Schools teachers and administrators and expanding our network of Junior Achievement volunteers in the coming year. I only wish that PASS would likewise participate in the improvement and delivery of education rather than misinformation and slanted rhetoric.”

Neese, who received a favorable grade from PASS, said he thinks he was graded fairly, but would like to improve it. He added that he believes he ranks education equal to emergency services, safety and economic development in the county.

He said he would like to see Triplett Tech used more by students in the coming years and “continue to improve overall education in the county.”

PASS President Dan Walsh, of Edinburg, stated in the news release: “PASS’ mission is to inform, organize and mobilize parents and other education supporters, and to give them a voice before local government and the media. The report card is part of the effort to inform. Parents should know where their elected officials stand on local funding for education.”

Walsh said PASS has a 15-member Board of Directors, including people from all parts of the county, most of them parents, who assigned the grades after discussion about the supervisors’ contributions to the school system.

“Through the report card, we hope to keep parents and other voters informed about where each supervisor stands on the question of education funding,” he added. His wife, Cynthia Walsh, is a member of the School Board.

“The School Board – which is elected to set funding priorities for SCPS – proposed a budget for the 2017-2018 school year which would have Shenandoah County contribute $2,295,446 in new revenue,” Walsh stated in the release. “However, the Board of Supervisors only chose to fund $628,615 of that. These grades reflect how much of the School Board’s budget proposal each Supervisor was willing to support. The report card is intended to inform both supporters and skeptics of education funding in our county, and it may be that some Supervisors who ran on anti-spending platforms would be proud of a low grade from us.”

PASS elaborated on the reasons for each of the grades with the following comments contained in the news release:

Dick Neese, District 1: B+

“Mr. Neese also did not support the final budget, as he felt it did not adequately fund the county’s priorities, including education. He supported efforts to raise the amount of education funding in the budget, and was willing to support small tax increases to achieve that. Mr. Neese did say early in the process that he would not support funding for any increase in salary to teachers or other SCPS employees; however, he made clear that he would support increasing county contributions to their health insurance to make up for cuts that were made last year. Mr. Neese has made official visits to the southern and central campuses.”

Steve Baker, District 2: A+

“For the last four years, Mr. Baker has been the strongest advocate for education in Shenandoah County on the Board of Supervisors. Mr. Baker advocated a $0.64 tax rate in order to better fund education, fire and rescue and public safety. He ultimately opposed the budget that was adopted as insufficiently funding those priorities. Mr. Baker makes it a practice each year to participate in events and tours at schools in SCPS.”

Richard Walker, District 3: C-

“Mr. Walker has been the swing vote in school budgets the last two years, and each time, he had the final say in the overall level of funding. On the one hand, Mr. Walker refused to go along with Supervisors Helsley, Baker and Neese to increase funding above what could be provided at the $0.60 tax rate. On the other hand, he did not support Ms. Bailey’s motion to cut operating spending by $3 million, making his position on school funding more moderate than that of his erstwhile allies. To Mr. Walker’s credit, he has received official briefings at the schools, and has been a frequent presence in them through his efforts to establish a Junior Achievement program focused on financial literacy.”

Cindy Bailey, District 4: F

“Ms. Bailey’s record was identical to that of Ms. Shruntz. During the budget process, Ms. Bailey criticized the School Board for what she characterized as their underfunding of Capital Improvement Program spending. This caused the School Board and others to counter that it was actually the Supervisors who had underfunded CIP. In response to this, Ms Bailey offered the aforementioned motion to cut SCPS’ operating budget by $3 million, and spent it all on CIP. That motion, if adopted, would have proved crippling to local education. Ms. Bailey did support the final budget. Ms. Bailey has never made an official visit to any SCPS campus during her almost four years in office.”

Marsha Shruntz, District 5: F

“Ms. Shruntz stated throughout the process that she was opposed to any increase in the local contribution to education. In addition, she supported a motion from Ms. Bailey that would have cut $3 million from SCPS operations and spent it on CIP – a cut that, if adopted, would have reduced the local contribution to education by 12%, and probably cost state matching money on top of it. Such a cut would also put the school in jeopardy of losing all state funding due to its inability to meet “Maintenance of Effort Requirements“, which essentially means the division is not contributing its required contribution to local education funding. Ms. Shruntz did join Mr. Walker, Ms. Bailey and Dr. Helsley in supporting the final budget. Ms. Shruntz has made one official visit to two schools on the North Campus and that was in the spring of 2015. She also attended the division’s legislative breakfast in December 2016.”

Conrad Helsley, District 6: A-

“Chairman Helsley has a strong record of support for the schools, particularly in recent years; however, this year he was fairly hamstrung by the politics of the board he chairs. From the beginning of the year, it was apparent that the board would frequently deadlock on 3-3 tie votes. Dr. Helsley made clear throughout the process that he would support increasing funds for the schools, and that he was particularly interested in having the County cover the VRS and health insurance premiums cost. However, he could not get a fourth vote for the budget he would have preferred. He reluctantly supported the final budget that was adopted, because the alternative was no budget at all. Dr. Helsley is present at the North Campus with some frequency.”