Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chesterfield County: The Leadership Vaccum

After last nights Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors Public Meeting I am absolutely convinced that what we are experiencing here in the County is a leadership vacuum.

County Government is suffering from a complete message or controlled public relations meltdown it has not seen in some forty years. Back then it was over the creation and expenses associated with having a Police Department versus maintaining a State supported Sheriff's department only. Today of course, we have both.

A large piece of the County budget (non-school) is allocated for Police, Fire, EMS but even those are under fire behind closed doors moving forward. The County is backing away from new Fire station construction for example.

It begs the this question. If you could make the case for the Station years ago based on real demand for safety and to ensure said safety in a timely manner to residents exactly what has changed?

I will tell you what. The politics.

Last night witnessed about 100 or so people sign in to speak before the Board. I personally got the stinking suspicion that the fix was in for most programs and some of these members were simply going through the motions. Yet, there was no real integrity before the audience to make the case in reality for what they have planned.

I have to admit that the case being made on behalf of Parks and Recreation was honorable. The face sweeping cuts to programs in large part because they are an easy target for these politicians. They do not want to actually be forced to examine what is truly at the heart of the problem facing the County budget and that is remarkably enough the size of the County payroll. You will not get a single elected official who views themselves as simply a "politician" first to speak the truth, but the fact is the County right now has a workforce that is larger than the 8 largest private (non-public sector) companies combined today.

County Government has a payroll of just under 12,000. That is even with not filling the so-called "unfilled positions" that the County always seems to be advertising. It is thought that the County will have to cut a mere 84 full-time jobs and 61 part-time moving forward, but you very rarely get a number out the Board. Its easier to place a target on things like historic sites or Rockwoods Nature Center than to put themselves in the cross hairs by looking to release employees, even when that exactly what is required.

We got a taste of things last night.

Daniel Gecker, Chairman of the Board has not been shy in articulating widely unpopular views and making such comments as;

"There have been significant reductions in Capital Improvements that the public doesn't see"-thank you blogger Chesterfield Taxpayer.

Really Mr. Gecker? Were you not the candidate pledging full "transparency"? How transparent has this budget process been? Why are things being hidden from the public? How can you state we are a First Choice Community when we have now gone five years since the County sought to post meetings, minutes and all governmental information online? Why is it we have only taking our public meetings online and on television? Why has not all the committee sessions and budgetary process as well as audits of County services and operations been brought to light? Why has the environmental studies (all) paid for by taxpayers for the Upper Swift Creek Plan not been fully disclosed to residents?

Here is a big question that we can never get a answer on and that is why is it that the Brandermill community seems to have such a stranglehold on the Swift Creek Reservoir. This body of water belongs to taxpayers not landowners who border it. Why have they been permitted to confine access to water owned by the County at large? How can the County permit them to control access points and determine who can and cannot enter the Reservoir via such area? Open it up; it belongs to all of us. Its our drinking water resource after all.

Parks and Recreation seem to be on the chopping blocks as ironic as it is as well as the Recycling Program. Its ironic because these are things that members like Marlene Durfee and Dan Gecker pledged to better leverage via their vision of smart growth and green space. Updating our parks was a key component a mere two years ago. I guess that was when they were sitting on the required funds and looking for a means in which to spend it as opposed to returning it to taxpayers. Now, the parks and programs centered around both the young and elderly are not as vital to these members as say government jobs. Jobs which require better than average salaries and higher benefit expenses than their private sector counterparts.

There was a question of "user fees" addressed last night by the public in a few questions and to be honest it makes the most sense in lean times by having people who wish to use programs actually have to pay for them.

I personally feel that it is perfectly acceptable to ask parents such as myself to help offset the expenses for athletic programs; either in the public school system or via Parks and Recreation. I have no problem with paying fees that support Night Basketball, Softball, etc for adults. I hardly expect the County to pick up that tab for me to play. Do they pay for our American Family or Gold's Gym membership? I think not. If there is enough demand for the program it will be funded accordingly through user fees and if not than the program disappears until there is such demand. That may seem harsh but that is the reality we face when we simply cannot afford the "wants" and can only provide for the "needs".

The Schools have a bigger cross to bear regarding funding. They have allowed the expenses per student ratio to rise year after year and we now are seeing a 57% rise in costs per pupil in the last 10 years. Another irony is the fact that while costs per pupil rose 57%, the actual budget to support the system grew 81% for the same period. What does that mean? Well, the School System was allocated/budgeted some 25% more than the rise in costs. Mind you enrollment rose about 15% since 2000. The County population rose to around 300,000 and to meet these numbers the County increased the number of schools by just over 10 percent and added about 20% more teachers in the period.

The Chesterfield Taxpayer has the cost per resident for the County Budget at 1,526 before taking into consideration the School System. Throw in the Schools and you add in about another 2,500 per resident. Of course the Board would rather see drastic cuts to the Schools over the General Fund and that is what is playing out right now.

There is a vacuum of leadership right now. No one is stepping up with solutions that are not firmly rooted in the preservation of government dominance. Programs are being examined first but not the government payroll. In fact the County seems bent on doing everything possible to preserve government jobs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Save Our Schools: Greenfield Elementary March 17, 2010

It was not really a hard choice to make tonight; sit through another evening of American Idol or head on out to Greenfield Elementary tonight and try and get a handle on exactly what the issues are that face the Chesterfield County School System.

Its no longer new news, but the County is in trouble. This kind of trouble is not going to simply vanish in the coming years either. The trouble we face is certainly financially rooted, but I have come in recent months to determine the County is also philosophically in trouble.

Tonight was more of a brief explanation of the roles of both the Board of Supervisors as well as the School Board than I would characterize it as a meeting to reveal the issues within the budget itself. We all know the School System has a pending shortfall, but tonight there was not really a true examination as to WHAT would be cut. It was briefly revealed in a PowerPoint presentation, but CUTS were either intentionally left out of the elected officials analysis or things just wandered of course during Q &A. Not unlike County funding I might add.

The County at this point is funding schools with about 58% of its revenues. There is a proposal created by the County Administrator to help the School Board with an added 6 million from the General fund, but as of yet the Board has not voted on the proposal and Gecker neither showed his hand or that of the other Supervisors.

The shortfall our schools face is a product of many factors. One of which was blatantly absent from tonight's meeting and that is the State Legislature. Richmond has sought to cut levels in statewide education at unprecedented levels in order to cure its own shortfalls at the State level. That said, we really did not get any real admission from Supervisor Daniel Gecker regarding his role in the crisis we face.

I tend to give School Board members a pass when it comes to these things centered around overcrowding or school construction. My reasoning is the School Board must be a reactionary body. Of course they should be proactive regarding its own budget and cut where it can cut in both good and lean times, but the reality is much of what they must respond to has to do with enrollment. The School Board has little control or even participation in the process that contributes to overcrowding in our schools. Overcrowding is a product of poor comprehensive planning and that falls right smack down on Mr. Gecker's lap.

No matter how many times Supervisor Marlene Durfee over in Matoaca rants about how the schools should be "redistricted" to curb the overcrowding, these elected officials never seem to want to take responsibility for the fact it is their obsession with growth that perpetuates this continual overcrowding issue.

Tonight, Mr. Gecker alluded to a post-2000 period that has created much of the mandates in education (a direct smack at George Bush and No Child Left Behind) that have in his opinion actually lowered the level of quality in our schools and specifically Crestwood Elementary where his children have been enrolled over the years. Whether that is true or not I leave to others to debate, but what I will say is that many of the classroom issues we face have a direct correlation with growth in the County. Excessive zoning approvals to take advantage of the booming housing markets of 2005 thru 2007 resulted in attracting new families to the County and thus raising the level of enrollment. Mind you, the County was already sitting at maxed levels before this boom and the result was once again the County finding itself behind the growth curve in terms of seats available in the classrooms throughout the County.

The one point I wanted everyone in attendance tonight to hear but did not get the chance and a point I want all the readers of this blog to grasp is simply illustrated by my own experience:

** I first entered Chesterfield County Public Schools in 1982. I was one of the first classes to suffer with having classes in dreadful trailers- you remember them- no heat or no ac. In the early 1980's citizens like my parents were told by the Board (not the School Board mind you) that the trailers were a necessity due to the rapid growth the County was experiencing. This was a time where the County went from having a Sheriff's Department to having a Police Department and Sheriff's Department. Forget about the fact the State picks up a lot of the tab for the Sheriffs Department but again that is another issue. Flash forward almost thirty years AND


Why? Well, you will get no admission from people like Mr. Gecker but if you simply take a look at the numbers during that same period he referred as post-2000 he has been involved in every major zoning development before either the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors.

Remember "Field of Dreams"? If you build it he will come. Well Mr. Gecker, with all due respect if YOU ZONE IT, developers will built it and THEY WILL COME!!! Look at how many new schools have been required to meet this growth in our schools. Was such growth necessary? Did this growth pay for itself? Apparently not folks.

Board members and Mr. Gecker can pass along blame all they want regarding the School Board, but certainly they and specifically Mr. Gecker bear some responsibility regarding the challenges the school faces in terms of enrollment. Gecker act this evening as though the slowing housing market was some sort of savior, but whats lost is these developments are still zoned and approved. Once this market turns around, the County will be right back where it started without enough seats in the classrooms. I bet we will be having this same overcrowding debate in five years.

So what has this planning brought us? Even in the midst of explosive growth our schools ARE the best. Our children ARE being provided a quality education (regardless of what Mr. Gecker thinks) by dedicated staff. Again, much of what are schools must deal with is in reaction to policies, especially planning, that the Board of Supervisors seeks to implement.

Most people do not think of "sprawl" being associated with schools. It usually gets linked with commercial enterprises, but if you look at what has happened to schools in certain older areas of the County versus say Mataoca or Midlothian it is easy to see how planning has played an integral part is destroying the high traditions of those schools while more money was focused on the "new" and less money was allocated to update and modernize the "old".

The message that is being lost on the Board of Supervisors is not one regarding taxes or tax hikes but the simple message of "SLOW DOWN" and "WORK TOGETHER". Allow the housing course to play out and cease zoning approvals in areas where we TODAY do not have seats in our classrooms for new enrollment. Period.

I wish I could speak to cuts and services on the chopping block but in reality I do not think anyone tonight learned anything other than the fact that the School Board has determined that it requires 548 million to provide the quality of education in Chesterfield it is committed to. We also learned that the Supervisors apparently do not endorse said number. Regardless, the School System will be looking at a budget likely to fall closer to the 520 level or even lower come 2012.

Mr. Gecker challenged all in attendance to contact their State Delegation and raise awareness regarding the impact of the measures they are undertaking and while certainly appropriate I do not suspect that those attending tonight wanted yet another buck to be passed.

As one attending leaned in and ask me...."so do we know if they are cutting the athletic program or what?" I guess they will approve the budget before we will really understand what is being cut. Kinda reminds you of Washington doesn't it?