County residents speak on IW schools budget

Published 12:06 pm Friday, February 24, 2017

Isle of Wight County Schools’ renovation plans for Windsor and Smithfield high schools received praise and caution from residents during a public hearing the school board held on its proposed operational budget for fiscal year 2017-2018. The hearing took place in the cafeteria of Windsor Elementary School on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

The budget specifies approximately $10 million in renovations to Smithfield High School and $3 million in renovations to Windsor High School, most of which will be used to construct new in-house career training facilities. The renovations are to be funded with the combination of a $3 million grant from Smithfield Foods and $10 million of debt service from the county, provided the Board of Supervisors accepts the division’s request for debt.

The renovations include a restaurant and catering business for culinary arts students, a health sciences academy for nurse’s aide students, a mechatronics lab, a warehouse to be run by students seeking their forklift certification, a new JROTC field house, a cosmetology classroom, a working farm and barn at Windsor Elementary for agricultural classes, redesigning the cafeterias and libraries of both high schools, and several other amenities.

“This gives kids the option for those who already know what they want to do in life; even for kids who don’t know what they want to do, like, ‘Do I want to major in engineering or business,’ with these new courses it will be much easier to decide than basing the decision on my AP calculus class,” said Smithfield High School junior Ian Cullen, who spoke at the hearing. “Even for students like me who are only here for another year, I think it’s great.”

Windsor resident Julie Branch, who has children in fourth, sixth and ninth grade, said her children were also excited about the plans, particularly her 9-year-old who wants to run a restaurant, and said to her upon learning of the plan, “Mom, [Superintendent] Dr. Thornton is putting in a culinary school and it’s just for me!”

Shelley Spears, whose daughter attends Smithfield Middle School, said “I’m really impressed that Isle of Wight County district is seeking to be more involved and more accountable for its CTE (career and technology education) programs rather than contracting them out to the Pruden Center. They’re owning the program and taking funds that were already budgeted for Pruden.”

The division will pay back the county for the debt over a period of 20 years with the roughly $1 million per year it will save by pulling out of participation with the Pruden Center in Suffolk, $750,000 of which will go to the county each year until the debt is paid off. Thornton said that the county’s taking on an additional $10 million in debt would not affect the county’s credit rating because the division has the money to pay the debt.

Christi Chatham, who has twin girls in sixth grade at Westside Elementary, and Hannah Couch, a sophomore at Windsor High School, also spoke in favor of the plans.

Ed Easter, however, sounded a word of caution.

“This wonderful plan is just that, it’s a plan, and until we get support from the Board of Supervisors we don’t have anything,” he said.

Former Carrsville school board representative Robert Eley said he couldn’t believe one of the supervisors had said that approving the plan would make the county have the biggest debt in the state.

“Y’all put yourself in this position,” he said of the board. “I didn’t go buying a million dollars worth of swamp land and then try to sell it to somebody. Why should the children have to pay to fix this problem? They [administrators] have spent two years putting this all together and now we have the support of corporations, and now we’re going to snub them? They have put together a nice program and it’s going to be paid for without the taxpayers.”

Bill Constance, an Isle of Wight County teacher, said that he and other teachers had hoped to see pay raises in the proposed budget.

“You cut our homework time so kids can be with their families, where is the care for the teachers’ families? There isn’t any,” he said. “You’re asking the Board of Supervisors for $10 million, but not asking for money for teachers and support staff. Why? Because you can always count on the teachers. You don’t have to worry about pay because the teachers always step up, but administrators are going to get a 14 percent raise. I think people forget all the extra time we put in. Your planning time is virtually non-existent and you have to take it home.”

Following the closing of the hearing, Thornton refuted Constance’s statement that administrators were going to get a 14 percent raise, saying that the only raises in the budget were for school nurses. He added that the General Assembly was going to publish its joint budget later that day and that it looked like they may give a 2 percent raise for teachers.

Windsor District school board representative Julia Perkins and Thornton encouraged everyone who attended the hearing to attend the next Board of Supervisors meeting and advocate for their approval of the division’s $10 million debt service request.

“They do listen, Thornton said. “Last year they did give the schools an additional $900,000. We spent that money exactly where we said we were going to.”

The next meeting of the Board of Supervisors is a work session on Thursday, March 2, with their next regular meeting on Thursday, March 16. Both will be at 6 p.m. in the board room of the Isle of Wight County Courthouse complex.