An update has been made to this article.
WINCHESTER — Helping residents get high-speed internet access and keeping the tax rate low were among the topics discussed Saturday morning during a nearly three-hour “town hall” hosted by Shawn Graber, the Back Creek District representative on the Frederick County Board of Supervisors.
About 50 people attended the gathering at West Oaks Farm Market on Middle Road.
Other elected officials who participated in the event were Frederick County School Board Back Creek District representative Brandon Monk and Del. Bill Wiley, R-29th.
Frederick County resident Winsome Sears, who is seeking the Republican nomination in Virginia’s lieutenant governor’s race, also attended.
The meeting covered a wide range of issues and was contentious at times. At the beginning of the event, Graber told audience members that they could take pictures, but he forbid audio or video recordings and said anyone caught doing so would be asked to leave.
The need for broadband
A lack of high-speed internet service, or broadband, was a concern among many people who attended the town hall.
The county’s rural areas often lack reliable internet service — a problem that has been frustrating for those trying to work or attend school from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One man asked why internet providers don’t provide the same level of service throughout the county.
Graber said it’s not financially beneficial for them to build infrastructure in rural areas where the population is smaller.
He noted that the county government has created public Wi-Fi hotspots to help students and workers who need internet service. They are located at Sunnyside Plaza and North Mountain Fire & Rescue Company. Last summer, in an effort to increase the availability of broadband, Graber helped convince the supervisors to reduce the conditional-use permit application fee for telecommunications towers over 50 feet from $7,000 to $750.
The county also is moving toward replacing its outdated public safety radio system. Graber said when the new radio towers go up — possibly in about two years — he and several other supervisors hope that broadband capabilities will be included.
Currently, the supervisors are in disagreement over the cost of a new radio system. This price tag is estimated at more than $21 million. Graber said the supervisors got a proposal for “a Lamborghini” when an “F-150” may be what’s needed. He and and two other supervisors have expressed interest in getting a second opinion to assess the matter.
Solar power facilities
The number of solar farms locating in the county was another major topic of discussion.
Last year, the Board of Supervisors approved conditional-use permits for two large solar power facilities in southern Frederick County, and a request from a third is slated to be considered by the board at its March 10 meeting. The facility would be in the Gore area in western Frederick County.
Graber said there are pros and cons to solar farms. While they keep farmland from turning into residential developments that place an added strain on schools and public safety, they are “not as pretty” as trees, and, when the solar facilities are eventually decommissioned, the waste generated from that will take up space in landfills, he noted.
The county’s tax rate
Graber said he opposes increasing the county’s real estate tax, as the past few years have been “very hard” economically on some county residents. In 2015, the county’s tax rate was 56 cents per $100 of assessed value. It’s now 61 cents per $100 of assessed value.
He told the crowd he opposes using the revenue from the 2021 county real estate reassessment to fund this year’s budget. Reassessed property values are expected to generate an additional $5.5 million in revenue, which means the county would collect an estimated $70,914,699 in real estate taxes in 2021, up 8.5% from $65,323,202 in 2020, but only if the property tax rate remains at 61 cents per $100 of assessed value. With real estate values increasing an average 8.5%, county residents will pay a higher tax bill if their home’s value went up.
Graber said he supports reducing the county’s tax rate to the 56.7 cents per $100 of assessed value so that the tax rate is revenue neutral.
He said that the school division, which gets the largest chunk of county funding, often has to make cuts to its budget requests, but noted that the Board of Supervisors has not reduced school funding in recent years. In fact, it has increased. He called Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent David Sovine “the spin doctor” and accused him of attempting to mislead the public about budget issues.
Graber said he wants categorical funding for the school division, which would require the school officials to get permission from the Board of Supervisors to transfer money from one budget category to another.
Graber agrees that James Wood High School needs to be renovated, but he believes it could be done for less than the $72.8 million suggested by school officials.
Graber voiced objections to the school division’s partnership with Deep Equity. Deep Equity is a professional development program from the California-based Corwin company. According to Corwin’s website, Deep Equity helps school divisions establish the climate, protocols, common language, and common goal of implementing culturally responsive teaching practices. The program seeks to reduce and eliminate achievement gaps, disparities in graduation rates, disproportionate suspension, expulsion and disciplinary referral rates.
Graber called the program “Marxism and communism” and said people should be guaranteed the same opportunities, not the same outcome. He said he has asked school officials what is being taught to students in regards to equity, but they haven’t told him.
Graber read aloud from the book “The Deep Equity Process” by Gary R. Howard, the founder of Deep Equity. In the book, Howard says some white people are bound by a fundamentalist white orientation. “They view the world through a single lens that is always right and always white,” the book says. “White supremacist hate groups represent one particularly hostile form of fundamentalist white identity, but there is also the Tea Party version that masks its racism with the guise of patriotism.”
Several audience members who identified themselves as Tea Party members were appalled by what Graber read and said they were not racist.
Graber asked if anyone wanted taxpayer money to fund Deep Equity. The school division’s budget proposal includes $125,000 for an equity and diversity coordinator.
Deetzie Bayliss, a local attorney and member of the Winchester-Frederick County Democratic Committee, said she wants the program to be funded and said white supremacists are taking over the Republican Party. She called Tea Party policies “anti-Black” and lambasted Graber for calling Sovine “a spin doctor.” She also accused the GOP of supporting the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, to which several audience members objected, with a shouting match erupting among them.
Bayliss insisted that equity means fairness, as it ensures that minorities and disadvantaged people could end up with the same success rate as everyone else.
Sears, who is Black, intervened to say her father came to the United States from Jamaica in 1963 with only $1.75 in his pocket and was able to succeed.
Due to the heated nature of the debate, Graber switched topics and invited people after the meeting to take a look at the book.
Frederick County Public Schools Coordinator of Policy and Communications Steve Edwards told The Star on Monday that the FCPS Equity Program was launched in the 2018-19 school year. Last year was the second year of implementation, but staff training is currently paused because of COVID-19. Edwards said the book Graber referenced on Saturday is one of the resources utilized as part of the school division’s equity training. He said it is not a textbook that is utilized in classes.
School and the pandemic
School Board member Monk said that the school division’s teachers are doing “amazing work” during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he is advocating for students — particularly early learners — to get back to school full time.
Some members in the audience agreed, with one woman saying, “We are losing an entire generation.” Monk is hopeful that at least early-learning students can return to school full-time in the near future.