POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors and School Board recently met to hear updates and discuss issues about where partnerships and joint efforts could best benefit the county.
During a joint meeting on Thursday, Sept. 10, the two boards met to discuss a variety of topics, including the start of the new school year and ideas on how to use future resources and funds, either together or separately.
The meeting began with a presentation by Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, about the start of the new school year. The school board had heard the same presentation two days earlier when discussing the start of school.
During that presentation, school board member Kim Hymel, who represents District 5, reiterated a request to the supervisors that she had made to her own board that she felt class sizes were either currently too large or in danger of becoming too large to safely maintain social distancing guidelines.
Hymel brought up her possible solutions, which would either be to stay in the hybrid model with students only going two to three days a week or to hire more teachers. She specifically asked about both CARES Act funds and the revenue stabilization fund the county established.
Jones said it is a valid concern that staff members are monitoring closely, but that the schools are currently operating within the approved health plan guidelines. He agreed that the division has to be careful about bringing too many children back too quickly and undoing all of their hard work but didn’t ask for immediate action.
Supervisor David Williams, District 1, asked the school board to keep the supervisors updated and said they will plan and prepare as needed moving forward.
Other business discussed at the meeting included:
* Pocahontas Landmark Center – Before the joint meeting started, the board members had the opportunity to tour the unused portions of the Pocahontas Landmark Center. Jones said the boards had asked county and school staff to research demolition costs for the three main parts of the building that are not being used.
Jones said the demolition cost estimate they have received is a little more than $300,000 for the unused portions of the building that the school division does not anticipate using.
County staff said they would like to have the Economic Development Authority meet and discuss if there are any possible uses they see for the space. Williams asked staff to vet any recommendations from the EDA and bring them back to the board.
*Custodial services – The school system intends to put out a request for proposals (RFP) for custodial services, and the county has expressed interest in joining in that process. Jones said it will be structured so there are both opportunities for a company to bid on all of the buildings as a package and the idea of splitting them up so local businesses can bid on smaller projects. He hopes to finish that process by the end of fall 2020.
* Employee health care – Wrestling with rising health care costs is an annual issue for everyone as they try to understand the trends that impact their rates, said Ned Smither, county administrator. The county and school division rely on industry professionals to help them along the way. In recent years, that service has been provided by Bankers Insurance.
It is a good idea to take a step back at times and take a look at health care consulting options available, Smither said, asking for the boards’ consent to solicit insurance professionals in a public procurement process.
Smither said staff feels like the county is getting a good service but it is still valuable to look at the process on occasion and make sure they have the right team in place, he said.
The goal is to get a consultant in place to shepherd staff through the process of whether the county needs to go through an RFP and look at the health plan and if there are better options, Jones said. Whatever they can do to help slow the rise in health care costs needs to be attempted.
n Enterprise resource planning (ERP) system – In late 2019, the county went out to bid for ideas on a new ERP system, Smither said. The county and school division operate with two different systems that have met each party’s needs to date, but “time has left us behind, especially on the county side.”
The school division’s ERP system is much more advanced than the county’s so the idea of joining together on a new system will not be as much of an upgrade for the schools, he said. However, there are enough benefits, including having the entire county on the same system, that make a joint system an attractive option.
Once the county chooses the right vendor, timing will be based on working around the payroll system, which starts on Jan. 1, and accounting system starting on July 1, Smither said. He estimated it would be July 2022 before they would be relying on the new system for day-to-day operations.
Supervisor Mike Byerly, District 3, pointed out that the county had already borrowed the money on bond for the ERP system, so it is currently just paying interest on a loan whose money it has not yet used.
* Employee social media policy – The school board has had discussion about an employee social media policy, Jones said. The division has a policy that governs social media use on school property during contractual hours or while using school equipment. However, it does not have guidelines or policies to govern social media usage by employees outside of school hours or on personal equipment.
“The school board had a conversation with the school board attorney. Their recommendation was not to create a new policy but to enhance the policy we have and create some regulations related to that policy that are kind of guidelines for usage. You have a First Amendment issue in terms of people’s speech and what they say outside of work hours, but there is also a professional conduct standard that we can put in place,” he said.
The school board’s attorney has been working with the human resources department to draft that language and it should come back to the board in October for its review, he said. The school board can share the results with the county if it is interested in it.
The division has received complaints from community members about certain staff members’ comments on social media, “especially during the summer when there was a lot of heated debate related to returning to school and not returning to school,” Jones said.
A few of the board members voiced initial concern with the First Amendment implications of such a policy when employees are not at work or on school equipment. Rick Cole, District 1, said there is a difference between the expectation for staff to represent the school division well and a difference of opinion.
“Just because their opinion is different from ours does not mean they are not representing us in an appropriate way. My concern with any of these policies has always been stepping on people’s rights and enforcement of the policy. Who is going to check? Who is going to decide what is appropriate and what is inappropriate,” Cole said. “Some things obviously you can say, these are inappropriate, but there are going to be lots of things that are gray.”
Valarie Ayers, District 3, said that probably one of the reasons this issue came about is because some teachers were using profanity on their private accounts that were visible to parents.
“And obviously if you have an employee or teacher, am I going to want my child in a classroom where a professional teacher is speaking like that,” she said, adding it was a concern for her.
* Expanded budgetary process and review – The supervisors have expressed interest in looking at its financial position over a 10-year period instead of five years, Smither said. They would like to see county and school staff members to work together to project 10 years’ worth of sound fundamental assumptions regarding the operating budget, debt ratios, fund balances, tax balances, staff costs, assessment levels, and more.
Smither introduced the idea of both boards having an accelerated CIP schedule to have it wrapped up before Christmas so it can go into the budget process in early 2021 better prepared.
Williams said he would like to see the county get away from county departments and the school preparing individual CIPs without working together as one county to plan for Powhatan’s critical needs in the next 10 years.
* While not a joint project, the four supervisors present unanimously authorized $133,000 for three sheriff’s vehicles as part of the scheduled vehicle replacement plan. They also approved $30,000 in county funds that, when added to $130,000 in CARES Act funding, will pay for the expansion of the county’s fiber network footprint to provide new public Wi-Fi coverage areas at Fire Company 1 and Fighting Creek Park, which is an active location. The project will also improve public safety communications by making the county network available at that facility.
The board voted 4-0 in favor of approving the funds. Larry Nordvig, District 2, was not present.
* During the second public comment period, music teacher Andrew Snead spoke. He said that at the end of the first week of school, instead of celebrating the successes of the school division, he and his colleagues at Powhatan Middle School were dealing with the fallout of a rumor about a student being warned against wearing a shirt with the Pledge of Allegiance. The allegation was shared on a radio station without being verified with the school district and was further shared on social media by elected leaders, he said. He pointed out that elected officials have the important power of being influencers in the community and asked them to be more cognizant of the diverse variety of people they have been elected to represent and use social media to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.