By William J. Des Rochers, Fluvanna Field Officer
The recent school budget unpleasantries in Fluvanna County startled many. They also suggest a change in the way many citizens view their Board of Supervisors and how they perceive county governance in the broadest sense. Three supervisors –- the majority — broke an implicit bond of fair play with citizens that will be difficult to restore in the short term.
Here is a quick overview of what happened: originally, a supervisor budget committee suggested that the school budget be reduced by $1 million for Fiscal Year 2013. Fair enough – it was, after all only an initial proposal. As the budget talks proceeded, and with input from the school board, the funds were restored and a real estate tax rate to support the budget was set at $.68 per $100 of assessed value.
Subsequently, a group of private citizens suggested specific line item cuts to the school budget that would cut $1.2 million from the FY 2012 allocation. The three supervisors: Kenney (Columbia), Ullenbruch (Palmyra), and Weaver (Cunningham), accepted the private recommendations and voted to adopt the last minute proposal and reduce the real estate tax rate to $.5981.
And therein lies the breach of faith and its entrails.
The school board, the school superintendent, and even the two remaining supervisors were given less than three hours notice of the new budget proposal before it was presented. This surprising lack of courtesy to colleagues and other county officials severely undermined the efforts of school superintendent Gena Keller to rebuild trust among elected officials and the community at large.
The high school bond issue has been divisive in the community, and the supervisors have praised Ms. Keller widely for her community outreach efforts. In one vote though, supervisors pulled the rug out from under Keller’s efforts and managed to turn popular attention away from a huge school budget and into a new perception of county politics attempting Washington-style back room dealings and hardball. The public was not amused.
Supervisors sought to remove one of its own from the school payroll. Supervisor Mozell Booker (Fork Union) is a part time employee of the school system and the gang of three suggested that the school board abolish her position to save money. The Board of Supervisors has no authority to force a school personnel action and it is striking that the lack of comity on the Board would extend that deeply.
People – virtually all school supporters — emerged from the woodwork and sought to restore the funds, increase taxes if necessary, or even transfer funds from other parts of the budget to support the schools. Social media commentary exploded. The final budget meeting attracted hundreds and all but three speakers supported the schools in some four hours of public comment — $650,000 was restored to the budget, enough to open the new high school.
The significance of the social media discourse cannot be underestimated. It ensnared one supervisor and undermined much of the credibility he had with a large segment of his constituency. According to readers, here are just some of the points made by supervisor Ullenbruch. posted on Facebook:
· He supported schools and strong education in Fluvanna [during the election campaign];
· He could not understand why school supporters would want to alienate him since he would vote on three more budgets;
· He proposed to transfer some one million from E-911 improvements to restore the school funding [he specifically voted against his own proposal at the final budget meeting]; and,
· He would call in the sheriff’s department to enforce trespassing laws if budget protesters picketed his store.
Mr. Ullenbruch’s inchoate concept of constituent service was matched by his attempt to enforce his perspective on regional nonprofits. For example, he stated publically that while Fluvanna partially restored local funding to JABBA and JAUNT for this fiscal year: “it’s a warning, it’s over… we’re giving them [a] one year warning that they have to get their act together and be self sufficient … because this [local funding] isn’t happening anymore”.
Well. Since Fluvanna accounts for just one-eleventh of JAUNT’s service population, one can only imagine the foreboding within the JAUNT offices over the Ullenbruch ultimatum to change its business model.
Ultimatums, implicit threats, whether directed at institutions or individuals, ill-become elected officials and citizens equally, especially at the local level. Fluvanna residents certainly deserved better in the recent budget process, and they should expect more from their supervisors in the future.
William Des Rochers is the Fluvanna County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.
The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you. To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org