WINCHESTER — J. Douglas McCarthy, who represents the Gainesboro District on the Frederick County Board of Supervisors, says he won’t support appropriating any more funding to the school division until he receives a detailed budget for the current fiscal year from school officials.
During Wednesday night’s supervisors’ meeting, McCarthy was critical of comments made by School Board member Michael Lake at a Sept. 15 School Board meeting. At that meeting, the School Board voted 6-1 to spend about $1.9 million to buy 19 new buses. About $542,831 of the $1.9 million was from funds saved as a result of schools being closed for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic. The non-COVID related funds were the result of increased sales tax revenue, payroll savings and a spending freeze the division implemented.
School Board member Brandon Monk, who was the only dissenting vote, said he wasn’t against purchasing the school buses, but he wanted the panel to consider other school division needs before making a decision on how the funds should be spent.
Lake replied that it’s the job of Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent David Sovine and his staff to run the school division.
McCarthy, at Wednesday’s meeting, read aloud Lake’s comments:
“We are a consumer of information from the school system, and we are a policy board. And what we need to keep an eye on is is policy being followed and is the school system following good decent business practices? We do not, I can tell you this is my ninth year, we do not do the weeds stuff. We are consumers of information from the staff. We judge does it meet the policy requirement, is it a good business practice? But the bottom line is, we don’t adjust figures. … we do not run the school division. That’s their business, Dr. Sovine and his staff’s business. And we keep to our policies. So in that regard, if we were to delay this, come back and think of other categories, it’s theirs to decide.”
McCarthy expressed frustration with Lake’s comments, saying Lake made it clear that School Board members “should not be asking questions about the budget or trying to determine spending priorities.”
“We don’t know enough about all of the categories of the budget book that’s probably this thick, where the money may or may not be spent,” Lake further stated, according to McCarthy. “We can sit around and think of a few, but it’s really not our job.”
“Really, not our job to know where the money may be spent?” McCarthy asked. “Really not our job to consider the budget and make decisions on spending priorities?”
A recording of the Sept. 15 School Board meeting confirmed Lake’s comments.
McCarthy said the School Board has a legal duty to manage and control funds under their care, citing Virginia Code section 22.1-89, which says, “Each school board shall manage and control the funds made available to the school board for public schools and may incur costs and expenses.”
“For at least two years now, multiple members of this board have requested from the school division a detailed budget so that we can see where the school’s money is being spent,” McCarthy said. “And the schools have failed to provide such information to us. Members of the school board, the few who have made a real effort to carry out their state-mandated duty, have requested the same information from their employees, the administrators of the school division. And they too are stonewalled and do not receive the information.”
McCarthy said the county’s taxpayers deserve to know how school funds are being spent.
“On behalf of the citizens of the Gainesboro District, as a member of this body who likewise has a fiduciary duty to know that the school’s funds are properly being overseen by elected officials, I demand swift action from the school board to make the school’s budget public and that they take up their duty of reviewing, managing and controlling those funds,” McCarthy said. “Until such time that that has taken place, I for one cannot perform my duty as a fiduciary on behalf of the taxpayers of Frederick County and I will not vote to appropriate any further funds to a school system until we know that the school board is carrying out its fiduciary duty.”
Back Creek District Supervisor Shawn Graber said he seconded everything said by McCarthy. He said in April he asked where money saved by the school division during the pandemic would be spent. He said he is still awaiting a response.
“It is very discouraging to me, in fact, I believe it’s reprehensible that we have members of the school board who are not managing the funds of you and I the taxpayer, when those funds are so hard to come by,” Graber said. “Especially in the environment in which we are in.”
Also at the meeting, Graber suggested the Board of Supervisors provide tax credits to families who choose to homeschool their children or send them to private school. He suggested anywhere from $500-$1,000 per student. He said fewer students in the public school system would ultimately save the county money.
In response to McCarthy’s comments, Steve Edwards, the school division’s coordinator of policy and communications, sent the following statement to The Star:
“Each year, our Finance Department produces a comprehensive budget document detailing the school budget approved by the School Board. Copies of that document are provided to each member of the School Board and each member of the Board of Supervisors. In addition, the entire document is posted on our website. It can be accessed under the About Us tab on the FCPS homepage. End of year financial statements are also made available to school board members as well as Board of Supervisors members. I would also note that the Association of School Business Officials recently recognized our school division with a Meritorious Budget award in recognition of the Finance Department’s work in sharing detailed budget information with the public in an easily understandable way. This is the eighth consecutive year the school division has received this recognition.”
For more information, see https://www.frederick.k12.va.us/about_us/budget.