Arguments over process are often really just gussied-up arguments over policy. So it might be with Henrico freshman supervisor Courtney Lynch’s concern for the separation of powers in the county.
Lynch complains that the county’s chief executive, County Manager John Vithoulkas, is usurping the legislature’s — i.e., the board’s — role by presenting a budget as a fait accompli. That seems dubious. Unlike, say, a president starting a war without congressional authorization, Vithoulkas doesn’t seem to have hijacked public policy. He proposed a budget, but it doesn’t take effect until the board acts, and the the supervisors are free to change it if they like. Lynch says she plans to vote against it, for instance.
The real cause of the contention seems to be a difference of opinion about teacher pay. Lynch has floated the idea of moving an additional $4.3 million to the school system to boost salaries. Her fellow supervisors have not exactly jumped on the bandwagon, and Vithoulkas has disputed her assertion that Henrico teachers are underpaid compared with their regional counterparts.
You can slice the numbers different ways. But figures from the Virginia Department of Education’s 2016-2017 salary survey show that the budgeted average teacher salary in 2017 was $50,797 in Chesterfield; $50,837 in Henrico; $53,621 in Hanover; and $53,867 in Richmond.
The public will get a chance to weigh in on these matters Tuesday, and the School Board and Board of Supervisors will hold a budget session a few days later, before the board votes on the budget April 24.
Whatever the correct level of teacher pay in the county is, however, that issue has little bearing on who sets it, or who has final authority over the budget. Supervisor Tyrone Nelson makes a pertinent point when he observes that part of the board’s role is to hire a strong administrator and let him or her manage effectively.
Henrico has been doing that for many years, first with Virgil Hazelett and now with Vithoulkas. All evidence suggests the system has been working exceptionally well. The county routinely wins accolades for good management, and to date has avoided the sort of friction between governing elements that has afflicted Richmond and is now afflicting Chesterfield in its dispute over police body cameras.
Lynch is perfectly entitled to her opinions about teacher pay. But those concerns should not be bolstered with flimsy accusations that Vithoulkas is somehow exceeding his authority. That takes a reasonable difference over policy into the dangerous realm of malfeasance. There’s simply no reason to go there.