Schools on short end of Southampton County budget

Published 8:45 am Friday, May 29, 2015

The Southampton County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday evening unanimously approved the $55.8 million budget for the 2016 fiscal year. This is down 0.85 percent — or $477,889 — from one year ago, and the Southampton County Public School system bears the brunt of declining state funds.

This chart represents the Southampton County Public Schools’ budget, listing the total and appropriating source.  -- Illustration | Andrew Lind, Ryan Outlaw

This chart represents the Southampton County Public Schools’ budget, listing the total and appropriating source. — Illustration | Andrew Lind, Ryan Outlaw

In fact, the district will see an operational decrease of nearly $850,000, something that both the supervisors and Superintendent Dr. Alvera J. Parrish have said they were aware of from beginning of the adoption process.

The problem regarding lack of state funding began when the district fell short of the Virginia Department of Education’s total enrollment projection of 2,721 students in Southampton County schools. With those numbers, the school system would have pulled in more than $18.2 million in state revenue. But with enrollment numbers at nearly 100 students fewer than expected, the county was faced with the aforementioned shortfall.

“Unquestionably, the biggest challenge with this budget is how Southampton County Public Schools can manage with less state funding,” County Administrator Michael W. Johnson said in the proposal. “If local revenues were available to plug the gap, I’d have already included them. But they’re not. Any additional budget increase in local funding for the schools will have to be supported by a new revenue stream — code speak for increasing taxes.”

And hiking taxes was something that the board was determined to avoid, to which Vice Chairman and Berlin-Ivor District Representative Ronald M. West alluded.

“Obviously, it’s a decision that hurts the schools. We have no new money to offer anyone this year without raising the real estate or personal property tax, and our only options are to raise taxes or keep it like it is,” he said. “It is difficult to make a motion and support this, but the citizens and taxpayers of Southampton County have paid and continue to pay, and we keep drawing from that well.

“It’s difficult for a lot of people,” West continued, “and to say ‘let those that have it pay’ — that sounds nice — but I’m not one that says take from this person and give to that one. We all earn what we earn.”

Dr. Alan W. Edwards of the Jerusalem District echoed West, but also placed the blame on the state government.

“He’s right; we gave all of the money we had away,” Edwards said. “The one thing that people need to really know is that the cuts come from the state. If you look at the last four or five years, [state revenue] is coming down and we have tried to go up, and we have gone up as high as we can go.”

To expand upon Edwards’ point, the actual state revenue for the Southampton County school system was $19.35 million in fiscal year 2009, but it has decreased by $2.08 million in the newly adopted budget. Conversely, $9.23 million in local revenue was appropriated to the district from the county in 2009, while $11.52 million will be appropriated in 2016. This represents an increase of $2.29 million.

“We’ve made up the difference every year, but you get to the point where you can’t make up the difference,” Edwards said. “You hear all this preaching at the state level about education, yet they continue to cut what they give to our local schools … We’re not the bad guys. We have sacrificed every year, and it’s to the point where our pockets are empty. It’s at the state level where this problem exists.”

Some board members, including Carl J. Faison (Boykins-Branchville) and Barry T. Porter (Franklin-Hunterdale) felt that the community could do more to supplement the shortfall.

“I supported a one-cent tax increase, and the reason I did is because I know the schools need help. I understand the situation, and I certainly don’t look forward to paying more taxes. Nobody does,” Faison said. “We are right to say those cuts from the state certainly hurt, but our schools are Southampton County schools; they’re not Virginia schools. We need to look out for Southampton County kids. I understand the preference for not raising taxes, but you have to have priorities, and my priority is and will always be with the schools.”

Porter, visibly upset, said, “I don’t like to say there’s a good guy and a bad guy because we all have to live with what we do. It’s true that the state is cutting money, but sometimes you have to look at who suffers when you cut the money, and it’s the kids that suffer, the schools that suffer, and I think it’s the community that suffers. [With this budget], the community will have a harder time educating the kids to be the citizens that we need them to be.

“I’m sad because sometimes I feel like I can sacrifice a bit more, and I don’t think it’s wrong to ask others to sacrifice with me,” he continued. “I know we need to pass the budget because we need to get on with business, but I want to echo something that others have said. We have to get more revenue in here. ”

He said that the only way for the county to get more revenue is to aggressively pursue businesses by making Southampton County more attractive.

“We have to do the right things to make people want to come here,” Porter said. “When I look out and see the attitude we have now with a lot of people in the community, and the anti-business people who want to keep it all the same, I look 10 years [down the road] and see a real estate rate of a dollar and a half and that scares me. We’ve got to pull together and support the people out there trying to help us attract good businesses that pay good and pay the taxes that we need to provide the services and treat the school like the school should be treated.”

Following the lengthy discussion period and ultimate approval of the new budget, Parrish and members of the Southampton school board left the meeting disheartened with the decision.

“It is unfortunate, and quite disappointing that the school division’s budget request was not funded as submitted,” she said, noting that the district requested $31,095,201 including all sources and was only allocated $30,460,540 — a difference of $634,661. “Although this reality will create challenges for the school division, we remain committed to providing the highest quality educational services to the students of Southampton County Public Schools.”