STEM funds focus during budget hearing

Published 6:21 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Include the STEM teachers in the budget. 

That was the overwhelming request Thursday during a public hearing on Isle of Wight County’s $78 million fiscal 2020 operating budget. 

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The School Board’s approved budget had included $254,384 for four STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers at the county’s four elementary schools, with the instructor at Windsor Elementary focusing on environmental science.   

The STEM teachers were among $932,941 of requests in the School Board’s budget that wasn’t included in the county’s draft operating budget. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Parents, teachers and administrators said the four STEM teachers would alleviate overcrowding in the resource classes, as well as enhance the division’s curriculum. 

Westside parent James Finch said adding STEM teachers would provide the next step after coding for students. 

“It’s a missing link,” he said. 

Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton said that in crafting the Board of Supervisors’ operating budget, he had taken out items in the School Board’s budget that were not mandatory as a way to make it work. 

Remaining were mandatory, and new, positions, such as guidance counselors and special education teachers, said Keaton. 

Isle of Wight County schools Superintendent Dr. James Thornton said adding the STEM teachers would reduce resource class sizes from 35 to 24 children. 

Another budget request from the Sheriff’s Office, for four school resource officers in the elementary schools, was also removed. 

In contrast, no one spoke out publicly — for or against — about the equivalent of a 2.7-cent real estate tax rate increase due to the recent property reassessment.  

After the public hearing, Board members debated filling the additional school positions, as well as other items, and the desire to remain “revenue neutral” in the wake of the reassessment. 

Overall, property values went up about 4 percent due to the state mandated reassessment. By law, the county can keep 1 percent of the additional revenues generated through real estate taxes, $378,600, without advertising its intention. 

If the Board wants the budget to remain what is called “revenue neutral,” it would need to lower the real estate tax rate to negate any additional revenue — in this case, go from 85 cents to 82 cents per $100 in value.

If the Board decides to keep the additional revenue — $1.2 million — the equivalent of a 2.7-cent tax increase — it must advertise that intention and allow the public to comment. 

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice pointed out that the schools are already getting a sizeable local increase over last year — $1 million. 

If the Board were to add funding for the STEM teachers, it would severely diminish what was left over for everything else in the budget, he said.

“It’s not being cruel. We don’t hate kids … there’s just so much money in the pot,” Grice said, adding that it is the School Board’s responsibility where money is spent in each major category. 

Carrsville District Supervisor Don Rosie said that if the Board doesn’t tap into the additional revenue generated by the reassessment, it will have to dip into reserves to balance the budget — an unsustainable strategy.

“Everyone will have to suffer a little bit,” he said. 

Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson said the Board needs to be commended for not raising taxes over the past three years, “but we need to face reality” and consider a tax increase.

Rosie stressed that the Board needs to prioritize.  

Board Chairman William McCarty suggested cutting the stormwater fee by 10 percent to free up some cash.

Keaton said that would likely result in an additional $127,000. 

Isle of Wight County residential property owners currently pay $54 a year stormwater fee to fund a state-mandated program. The fee was reduced for fiscal 2018 by 25 percent. 

Isle of Wight Director of Utilities Don Jennings said the cut would likely result in fewer capital projects as personnel was already at a minimum. 

The Board meets Thursday, May 2, 6 p.m. to continue budget discussions. The schools portion of the budget must be adopted by May 15.  {/mprestriction}