Elected Montgomery County boards talk about current relationship
“I am completing my ninth year on the school board,” Chairman Wendell Jones wrote in an email Thursday, “and I would describe the relationship between the two governing bodies to be at its highest level of communication and cooperation.”
Supervisor Bill Brown, who is finishing a fifth year on the board, agreed. “In my opinion the two boards get along better than they ever have,” he wrote in an email.
The comments follow a rare pre-budget season forum that the school board called on Nov. 12 to discuss the desperate measures, like closing schools, that may come next year unless the financial picture changes significantly. Hundreds of residents turned out, with dozens of speakers saying the county should raise its real estate tax, its main local revenue source, rather than allow school closings.
Two days later, the board of supervisors voted unanimously to set up a $400,000 reserve to address safety problems at Christiansburg High School. The week after that, school board members complained bitterly that supervisors had overstepped their authority, and said they’d prefer to spend the money on studies about how to address elementary school overcrowding, and whether to replace Christiansburg High altogether.
At the school board’s Nov. 20 meeting, board member Penny Franklin described herself as “very, very, to put it nicely, annoyed” that Supervisor Chris Tuck introduced the idea of a reserve fund for Christiansburg High. She said it was up to the school board, not the supervisors, to determine how money would be spent on the schools. Jones said he agreed completely.
At meetings, Tuck said he got no response in months of asking school board members about what they saw as the future of Christiansburg High School. Franklin said at her board’s Nov. 20 session that the supervisors got the information they asked for at a joint session they held with the school board in September.
At that session, supervisors asked the school board if their priority list for repairs and renovations, written in 2006, should be updated. School board members said they would work on it.
Last Wednesday, residents came to a supervisors “County Conversations” session to again ask that schools not be closed.
Tuck said he hoped local revenue would pick up enough next year that the school board would not be forced into drastic budget measures. But other supervisors said they doubted the county could completely offset anticipated future declines in state funding.
Asked at last week’s meeting about the money for Christiansburg High School, Supervisor Matt Gabriele said the school board could request to spend it on other projects. But Tuck said he’d earmarked it for Christiansburg because the county’s other three high schools were recently replaced or are under construction now.
Four supervisors and one school board member, Jones, last week shared their thoughts on the elected boards’ relations and how to align their planning. The other 10 board members did not reply to requests to comment for this story.
Here’s what those who responded had to say:
- Jones: “I’ll share my thoughts as one individual board member … I do not see the recent decision/discussion as a disconnect between the boards, but simply one single elected board member ensuring the needs of their local constituency are recognized/heard. Granted, the approach was certainly not aligned with how both boards have communicated and reached agreement in the past, but it’s an issue that can resolved in a positive manner. …
Do both boards always agree? Of course not, but I do believe that over the years the communication and relationship between both boards has improved to a level of great understanding why we don’t agree, but we are still able to reach a consensus that results in a positive outcome. …
To characterize the need for the $400,000 as safety issues was unfortunate and not aligned with how we have previously addressed issues of this nature.”
- Brown: “I personally believe our two board get along great, every now and then there will be some minor hiccups, but nothing that cannot be resolved quickly. Because we have so much mutual respect for each other, those minor hiccups, whenever they may occur, gives us the opportunity to grow and strengthen our relationships. … We the board members are not afraid to communicate with each other and we may not always agree, but we do respect each other’s thoughts and opinions. Both boards are elected by the voters for specific reasons. Depending on who you listen to, sometimes those specific reasons can become cloudy between board members. We are indeed pulling in the same direction and want what is best for our public schools as well as the entire county.”
- Gabriele: “I think the relationship between two boards is quite good. It’s, however, inevitable that people will argue from time to time but ultimately it’s clear to me that we’re all pulling in the same direction. The CHS issue, for example, shows how committed the BoS [board of supervisors] is to helping make sure that students across the whole county are in safe environments that are conducive to learning.”
- Supervisor Annette Perkins: “I believe that the relationship is very good. Communications between our chair and administrator and the school board chair and superintendent are ongoing. … You heard our attorney, administrator, board members explain the how and why of the $400,000 set-side. We asked that it be used for CHS; however, we cannot make the school board use it for that purpose. First of all, the school board must ask for the funds, tell us what they want to use it for; we may then designate the funds for maintenance or any of the seven categories asked for by the school board. So, the suggestion of use for CHS is just that. …
Perhaps we will not always agree, but we have lots of avenues to work through those times. There are many needs within the county and school system. Cooperation is a vital necessity if we are to address them as we should.”
- Supervisor Mary Biggs: ““It has served both boards well that a BoS member covers their meetings as a liaison as I did for 16 years, and now Matt does. It also is beneficial that the chairs of both boards and the county administrator and the superintendent meet monthly. … When I was elected to the board in 1996, the two boards did not have a good relationship, and rarely interacted. That is why I offered to be the BoS liaison … because I believed it was so important to get some communication going between the boards other than at the strained budget time. … I feel good about the relationship between our boards, and look forward to building on our positives we share as we move forward as a county together. … As we know, public education goes hand in hand with positive economic development and quality of life in a community.”
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