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Prince William Sets Flat Tax Rate; Demonstrates Distrust of School Board

| May 10, 2016 | 0 Comments | News
Chairman Corey Stewart at the May 6, 2016 meeting of the Board of County Supervisors.

Chairman Corey Stewart at the May 6, 2016 meeting of the Board of County Supervisors.

Prince William County Supervisors set a flat property tax rate, Friday, which will cut $7.1 million from the expected school budget for FY17.

In a 5-3 vote, the board approved a flat property tax at a rate of 1.122 percent, or $1.122 for every $100 of assessed value.

Chairman Stewart; Supervisors Lawson (R-Brentsville), Candland (R-Gainesville), Anderson (R-Occoquan) and Nohe (R-Coles) approved. Supervisors Caddigan (R-Potomac), Principi (D-Woodbridge) and Jenkins (D-Neabsco) opposed.

It is a “flat tax” since the tax rate remains unchanged since FY16. However, the tax rate will still provide more money to the county than the previous year. And the average home-owner will see their property taxes increase by 1.8 percent, or $77 over the course of the year due to rising home values.

The School Budget

Within this budget, the schools will receive their usual 57.23 percent of the overall county budget as per the revenue sharing agreement.

The schools’ budget was based upon the advertised tax rate, which assumed a property tax rate increase of 3.88 percent. Supervisors could not decide upon an advertised tax rate and defaulted to the administrative tax rate outlined by the county’s five-year plan.

Supervisors stipulated that the schools may receive an additional $1 million to be used only for reducing class size. They wanted strings attached so money would not be spent in a way that did not directly impact student learning.

The schools’ attorney sent a letter to the school board, saying the grant legally fell into a “gray area,” since in Virginia county boards cannot dictate to elected school boards how to spend their funds.

For that reason, the supervisors placed that money aside. They hope to first get the school board to agree on how they will use it, and to have them match another $1 million in their budget for reducing class classes.

The board made known its displeasure with the school board’s decisions in regards to spending priorities.

They were critical of the new  board for promising to spending up to $500,000 to renamed Godwin Middle School after George Hampton, and of the administration for allowing Colgan High School to purchase a $120,000 new Steinway piano.

Tension rose two weeks ago as Supervisor Pete Candland and School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers exchanged emails on spending priorities.

Then, during the last school board meeting, Sawyers said that if the school budget is not fully funded, cuts should come from districts whose supervisors voted against funding the school budget.

Pete Candland and Jeanine Lawson voted against funding the school budget as a symbolic protest against Sawyers’ statement.

“I cannot and will not support the threat and bullying tactics from the Chairman of the School Board,” Candland said.

However, some school board members differ with Sawyers on this issue of the school budget, and believe the schools will be fine even with the flat tax.

According to a Facebook post by school board member Willie Deutsch (Coles), the schools are getting more funding from the state that should make up for what they do not receive from the county.

During citizen’s time, citizens and teachers requested the supervisors fully fund the schools. Teachers and students shared stories of students in need.

One elementary teacher at Yorkshire Elementary, a Title I school, told supervisors how she always buys snacks for her food-insecure students. However, that day, she had to choose between taking her dog to the vet or feeding her students.

Residents told board members the schools desperately need money, but some also expressed anger over the spending priorities of school board, telling the supervisors to “supervise” them.

Chairman Stewart explained that Virginia law does not allow them to dictate how the school board spends its money.

School Board member Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) came to the defense of her board, saying they are very capable. She said that there is no room for waste when 90 percent of a principal’s budget goes directly to staffing.

Jessie said supervisors should look towards themselves for creating this problem. They approve development that brought in so many children.

Caddigan, who was a former school board member, explained most of the school budget goes towards operating costs.

“The hiring of new teachers [and] the building of schools costs a lot of money. They have to pay for these things [before reducing class sizes],” she said. “They currently use a great portion of their money to pay for debt, now.”

Police Staffing

To reach the budget saving goals, other items were cut from the budget, including the proposed increase of 13 new police officers. Stewart said it is not the right time to hire more officers because there are several unfilled positions from previous years.

Instead, the board voted to spend $1.8 million “multiplier” to give retiring public safety officers an increase in their retirement benefits. They hope the additional benefits that this will make Prince William County more attractive to public safety officers seeking employment.

The board also voted to fund the pilot program for police cameras, but not to fund the full program, which could be something they decide to fund at a later time.

Animal Shelter

The board members also decided to leave in the $94 thousand to build the “human society,” or animal shelter.

Five-year Plan

Candland expressed a dislike for the way the five-year plan is currently handled. He said assuming a 3.88 percent increase every year is too much, and it creates high expectations in the community for spending.

Ruth Anderson wanted to possibly revise the revenue sharing agreement between the schools.

Maureen Caddigan said they would have to be careful to follow the law, allowing the school board autonomy. She said when Dr. Kelley was superintendent there was open communication between the two boards, fostered by the revenue sharing agreement, but that is no longer the case.

© 2016, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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