Gloucester School Board members said Tuesday they were insulted, both personally and as public officials, by remarks from county supervisors during a meeting last week in which the supervisors voted 4-3 to reconsider their method of school funding.
The school board currently receives its annual allocation of funds from supervisors in a lump sum, a practice in place since the local school leaders became a fully elected board in 1998.
"At that time, the supervisors realized we’re accountable to our constituents … and went to lump sum funding," said school board member A.J. "Jay" McGlohn. "We’ve been taking care of our funds in a very frugal manner. I see no need to change." Referring to the supervisors’ meeting last week, McGlohn said "some of the comments I found to be offensive."
The school budget holds eight categories, including six for operating funds. With lump-sum funding, the school board has the sole authority to make transfers among the categories. If the supervisors revert to categorical funding, the school board would have to seek the approval of supervisors for any such transfers.
Ware District supervisor Gregory Woodard brought the issue to the county board’s June 6 meeting agenda, when he questioned the school board’s decision to use remaining fiscal year 2010 funds to give its employees (except for its top two administrators) a $400 bonus at the end of the school year to help compensate for static salaries.
In the July 6 supervisors’ meeting, Woodard said the school board was "reckless in its decision" to issue the bonuses and said he was not bringing the matter up as a political issue "but one of being fiscally responsible." Also commenting on the matter, supervisor John Northstein said, "It’s not that we distrust, but we have to be very careful with taxpayers’ money."
School board member Randy Burak said he was "appalled and offended" by the supervisors’ remarks. "We all answer to the same group of people. The last time this was considered, we had to change the venue due to the interest, and people said that’s not what they wanted. I’m just confused why we’re going down this road again."
Burak was referring to the supervisors’ January 2008 vote to move to categorical funding for schools, which took school officials by surprise. The move was quickly reversed after members of the community, and the school board, berated the change. "We all have a job to do, and I believe the people expect us to attend to the business of the schools," said school board vice chairman Anita Parker.
None of the school board members attended the July 6 meeting, but all said they either viewed it or read about it. "What I have heard and read is very disturbing to me," said member Starr Belvin. "I have never publicly berated, humiliated or questioned the integrity of any public official. I was personally insulted by some of the comments last week." Belvin said members of the two boards should be able to discuss issues "with respect and dignity."
"I found that to be very offensive," said school board member Kevin Smith regarding the supervisors’ remarks. "I think it does matter what we think. This board has always been open. This board has always been transparent. It made you feel like you’re trying to hide something."
And to that accusation, Smith said he would respond, "How can you judge the speck that’s in my eye where there’s a plank in yours?"
"We have never, ever overspent our money," said school board chairman Ann Burruss. Burruss said the school board returned almost $600,000 to the county two years ago when the county was in dire straits. She said the $400 bonuses, at a cost of about $380,000, were made possible because of savings across budget categories. The savings, Burruss said, were due to budget holders being extremely frugal during a time of budget constraints.
"People came to me in droves saying you don’t know how much I appreciate this," Burruss said of employee response to the bonuses. "To be called irresponsible is an affront, a personal affront."
The supervisors’ 4-3 vote to revisit the issue at its Sept. 7 meeting included giving the school board an opportunity to present its position during that session. The school officials said Tuesday they would rather have the opportunity to discuss the issue with supervisors, something that could be accomplished during a joint meeting of the boards already scheduled for Sept. 21.