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The county race is focusing on school funding issues.
Charles Wagner up for election 2005
Thursday, October 24, 2013
The spring’s bitter battle over school funding in Franklin County will be rehashed in the voting booth on Election Day, as three members of the board of supervisors face challenges from candidates with ties to the school system.
During the budget negotiations earlier this year — after supervisors made their allocation to the schools — the school board eliminated middle school sports as a cost-cutting measure, sparking the resignation of the school board chairman.
The supervisors later handed over more funding to the schools, and the school board restored the athletic programs.
The tension has frustrated members of both bodies and many citizens, with supervisors and school board members at odds over the school system’s needs and the transparency of its budgeting process.
The supervisors are set to consider the school board’s request for carryover funds — money not spent from the previous fiscal year’s budget — at a Nov. 19 meeting. If approved, $1.3 million of unspent funds would be funneled back into the county’s appropriation to the schools, which currently stands at $31.6 million out of a $124 million total county budget.
By that time, Franklin County voters will have spoken in the Nov. 5 election with the school funding debate as its central theme.
Incumbent Republican Ronnie Thompson is opposed by two challengers in the Boone District, while supervisors Leland Mitchell and Charles Wagner, both independents, will share the ballot with one challenger each.
Three challengers are campaigning with the top priority of improving relations with the school board, and each has ties to the school system.
Joyce Gordon, a 64-year-old taking on Thompson in the Boone District, is a business manager at the school division’s Gereau Center. Jeff Worley, a 44-year-old postal worker trying to unseat former chairman Wagner in the Rocky Mount District, has watched the battles through his wife’s job as a teacher. And Larry Darnell Moore, 62, seeking the Snow Creek District seat against the incumbent Mitchell, retired from an administrative post at Franklin County High School.
Gordon, in particular, has expressed disappointment with the tone of the budgeting process, which she said was an embarrassment for the county.
“That whole mess made us the laughingstock of the state,” she said.
Gordon and Worley spoke at an Oct. 15 public hearing about the carryover funding, imploring the board on which they hope to sit to approve the funding for the schools. The supervisors tabled the conversation, saying they wanted to wait until after the meeting of a joint committee consisting of two school board members and two supervisors.
The outlier among challengers is Bennie Russell, the 62-year-old county fire marshal with plans to retire at year’s end, whose campaign revolves around the need for more proactive efforts to boost economic development. He is running for the Boone District seat alongside Gordon and the incumbent Thompson.
In each of the races, voters appear to have a choice between an incumbent set on fiscal management and a challenger with an eye on spending as a precursor to growth and development.
Thompson has emphasized that the supervisors must look out for the entire budget. He was criticized by some school system supporters during negotiations for saying the carryover funds belong to the county and shouldn’t be treated as a school “slush fund.”
“You can’t have just one agenda,” Thompson said. “Now as a school board member, you should be zealous for the schools. But as a supervisor, I am zealous for Franklin County.”
In April, the supervisors rejected a tax increase that was seen as a way to offer more funding to the schools. At 54 cents per $100 of assessed value, Franklin County’s real estate tax is one of the lowest in the region, though nearby Bedford County’s rate is lower at 50 cents. All three supervisors seeking re-election voted against the increase, which lost 6-1.
Gordon said her outlook is typically conservative, but she goes “all in” for the greater good.
“When the school board has money left over, why don’t we appropriate the money back to the schools to buy things they need?” she said of the funds, which have ended up being given back to the schools in each recent year. “I just don’t think this money is a bad thing.”
For Russell, also campaigning in the Boone District, the schools appear to come out with enough money each year.
He believes a lesson that served his ancestors well could benefit the economic development of a county he has long worked for in the public safety arena.
“You don’t make money by saving money,” Russell said.
In addition to improving public safety communication and facilities, a cause close to his heart, he hopes to see natural gas utilities and improved industrial parks.
“We’ve got to make the initial appearance that we want to do something, and then go get some of that money,” he said.
Thompson, 62, hopes to ensure the county can embark on all of the projects he deems “needs.” That list, it turns out, is widely agreed upon.
All of the candidates have expressed a desire to see a proposed technical center built at Franklin County High School to offer certifications and licensing programs to students who may not attend a four-year college. They have also agreed that the county’s emergency radio system is in need of an upgrade, which is currently being pursued.
Mitchell, whose Snow Creek District has particularly spotty radio coverage, said that is among his top priorities. The 73-year-old, a lifelong farmer and retired businessman, said the county’s solid financial position likely will allow it to take on some necessary projects.
“We’re basing that borrowing on need, low interest rates. It’s a fine time to do some projects at a reduced cost,” Mitchell said.
Still, he doesn’t want to throw money around solely because the funding is available.
“Our ability to borrow money shouldn’t influence us to borrow it,” Mitchell said. “It should be our need.”
Moore, Mitchell’s Democratic opponent, said the county should be pushing to retain Franklin County graduates after they attend college. His plans would include an increased focus on education, as well as parks and recreation.
Worley, who is challenging Wagner as the incumbent seeks his fifth term, has designs on keeping more of residents’ money within the county.
“I see a lot of families — they live here, they don’t work here,” he said. “They spend money elsewhere and I would like to see more of that money stay here.”
He said he would support increased taxes if they went toward supporting necessary programs.
Wagner said his top priority is economic development. Specifically, the Rocky Mount supervisor wants to see a new industrial park built.
On the schools, Wagner went with the rest of the supervisors, except Bobby Thompson, in declining to vote for a tax increase during negotiations. He said he commends the system for not exhausting its funds, but wants to make sure priorities are in order.
The longtime supervisor said the many projects on the horizon won’t happen overnight, but he believes the county can plan to pay for them. He said a tax increase may become necessary at some point, but he hopes it isn’t in the near future.
“If we have to raise taxes, it’s got to be for the whole thing,” Wagner said, “Not just for the schools and not just for something on the county side.”
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