In an effort to see Henrico County restore funding for the regional MathScience Innovation Center in its budget for fiscal 2020, about 20 people signed up to speak at a public hearing Tuesday and make their appeal to the Board of Supervisors.
“We feel like we’re not being heard, that they’re becoming desensitized to our voices,” said Perisa Ashar, a sophomore at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School who is involved in programs at the math and science center.
As the center’s supporters are continuing to pressure Henrico leaders seven months ahead of an election where all seats on the county’s Board of Supervisors and School Board are up for re-election, local officials are at odds when it comes to defending the school division’s decision to strip the $1.1 million the county gives the center each year.
“We can’t make line-item adjustments to the school budget,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone Nelson. “We can’t strong-arm the School Board into putting that money back in.”
Under the Constitution of Virginia and state law, according to County Attorney Joe Rapisarda, local school boards have the final say on school operations and finances.
“We haven’t sought additional funding, nor do we intend to,” said School Board Chairman John Montgomery. “They haven’t offered it, and we haven’t requested it.”
Even if the supervisors were to allocate additional funding to the school budget with the intent of funding the MathScience Innovation Center, the School Board could choose to save the money or spend it on anything else permitted by law, Rapisarda said.
The School Board unanimously adopted a $505.5 million general fund budget proposal at the end of February. County Manager John Vithoulkas’ proposed budget, which was revealed publicly about a week later, includes an additional $9 million for the school division to pay for a 3 percent merit-based wage increase for school employees.
The Hanover County School Board voted Tuesday to remove its funding for the math and science center. The school systems for Chesterfield County and Richmond also approved budgets that strip funding.
Last year, Chesterfield started the domino effect by cutting a significant portion of its allocation to the center, and is now considering whether to remove the rest of its funding in next year’s budget.
As of Tuesday evening, a student’s online petition calling on the county to “save” the center had more than 1,750 electronic signatures.
Although more than 20 people signed up to speak about the MathScience Innovation Center ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Henrico supervisors allowed only a few of them to discuss the topic, in order to save time.
In a March 25 letter to Vithoulkas, Henrico schools Superintendent Amy Cashwell said the regional consortium supporting the center is “falling apart” and that its “services are diminishing,” with hundreds of fewer Henrico students participating and engaging in the center’s programs on- and off-site last year.
The school division is also planning to reduce annual student laptop fees from $50 to $25 and to purchase new textbooks with the money saved.
Cashwell and other school officials say the school division remains committed to math and science education, but several speakers noted that the county’s decision could prevent students from learning more about certain high-level science disciplines and preclude students from participating in regional and international science fairs.
In comments during Tuesday’s hearing, Supervisor Tommy Branin said the school division hasn’t been communicating its decision well, but he did not criticize the decision.
“They have told us they will be rolling out a program that’s better,” Branin said. “I have full confidence in the School Board.”
Although some supervisors are concerned about the negative attention the issue has drawn, Nelson said the supervisors are not asking the School Board to amend its budget.
“The School Board has to make hard decisions like we do. We have to respect that. They are not appointed; they are elected,” Nelson said Monday.
In an interview last month, Supervisor Frank Thornton said he thinks the dynamic between the two boards would be different if the supervisors still appointed the School Board’s members.
“In most districts it hasn’t worked out harmoniously. I think it’s because they have to ask us for money. I don’t think — in my lifetime — Virginia is going to give taxing authority to School Boards,” Thornton said.
While school officials seeking more funding has led to some debate during the budget development process in districts across the state, it has also stymied non-school officials from pursuing their own agendas, like when former Supervisor Courtney Lynch last year called for the county to add $4.3 million to the budget to pad teacher pay.
Lynch failed to gain enough support for the proposal, but the county government and school division later agreed to put $3.2 million toward hiring new teachers and support staff, Nelson noted.
Still, Thornton said he thinks having appointed School Board members could streamline some processes.
“I thought it was a democratic process, but I think it’d work better for me if I appointed someone who had my same thoughts about educational ideas,” he said. “I think that’s one of the challenges we’ve had between board members and the School Board.”
The Board of Supervisors will vote to adopt the budget on April 23. Under the proposal, the county’s real estate tax rate of 87 cents per $100 of assessed value will remain in place.