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Speakers appeal for funds
About 200 jam city council budget meeting
Martinsville Commonwealthâ€™s Attorney Joan Ziglar (at podium) addresses Martinsville City Council (foreground) at its budget hearing Tuesday. The meeting was moved to the cityâ€™s circuit courtroom because of the large crowd, but people still spilled out into the hallway. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Area residents flooded the municipal building Tuesday night to voice their opinions to Martinsville City Council on how city officials should handle the budgeting process for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
About 200 people filled the circuit courtroom, where a public input session on the fiscal 2011 budget was held because the crowd was too large for the council chambers.
Thirty-eight people signed up to address the council, according to Mayor Kathy Lawson, but only 28 were able to speak during the 75 minutes that was allotted for speakers. A half-hour was reserved for the session on the council's agenda, but Lawson said she extended that time frame after she heard that a lot of people planned to attend.
Lawson told the crowd that the fiscal 2011 budget will be "no doubt the most challenging budget you or I will ever face."�
Due to economic factors, the city schools expect to lose about $2.9 million in state funds. The city anticipates losing about $1 million in local revenues, and its constitutional offices altogether expect to lose about $800,000 in state funds, city officials have said.
Martinsville Commonwealth's Attorney Joan Ziglar said each year constitutional offices have "been hit by cut after cut after cut." She added that she may have to close her office for a period this fiscal year due to budget cuts.
Lawson called the losses "catastrophic." As a result of the losses, she said, "difficult decisions lie ahead" on where cuts will be made.
The schools plan to eliminate 47 jobs, including a principal, three assistant principals, 12 teachers and 12 teacher's aides, due to reduced state funds. They are asking the council for $487,143 in extra funds so they will not, as Superintendent Scott Kizner has said, have to cut up to 12 more jobs.
City educators and parents pleaded with the council not to reduce funds to the Martinsville schools. They noted major academic progress that students have made in recent years, as well as recognition by former governor Tim Kaine that the city schools are the best in the state in their efforts to help students learn.
That is especially notable because in all five city schools, "the vast majority of our students live in poverty," said Joan Montgomery, the retiring principal at Patrick Henry Elementary School.
Those students need gifted educators who will help them find and develop their academic abilities and personal talents so they can earn decent livings after they graduate and "not be doomed to lives of poverty," she said.
"Our children need someone to believe in them," Montgomery told council members. "I hope it will be you."�
Taylor Brown, a 9-year-old student at Albert Harris Elementary School, said "our teachers already work so hard" and if teaching positions are eliminated, remaining teachers "will be overwhelmed" in helping students learn.
In terms of making students successful, "what we are doing here ... is what every other high poverty, struggling school system .. is trying to figure out how to do," and the Martinsville schools are gaining national recognition for their work, said Pam Heath, the system's human resources director.
She mentioned that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan "took notes" when she told him about the city schools' successes during a meeting they participated in a few months ago.
The Rev. Ellen Hanckel, rector at Christ Episcopal Church, gave the council a letter signed by more than 50 members of the church, asking that city funds for the schools not be cut.
"We cannot afford to slide backwards" and lose academic progress that the schools have made, said Hanckel, who was an educator before she entered the ministry. "Our students deserve a first-class education no less than" students in wealthier areas such as Northern Virginia.
Martinsville School Board Chairman Jim Johnson recently put forth the idea of a small tax increase to support school needs. Johnson was at the meeting but did not speak.
School board member Robert Williams suggested a tax increase at Tuesday's meeting. Some educators and parents said they would support it.
Parent JIm Woods said that as a man with "Libertarian leanings," he has "abhorred" the idea of tax increases in the past. But he sees the need for a tax hike to help city students, he indicated.
Under Kizner's leadership, "our school system has improved tremendously," said Stephanie Ratcliffe, who is both a parent and teacher. "Don't cut what we need. If we have to have a tax increase, so be it."�
Kizner emphasized that educators who spoke did so out of concern for students, and not out of concern for possibly losing their jobs.
Still, he said "it makes no sense to me" that the city is on the verge of allowing talented educators - many of whom moved to Martinsville with intentions of making their lives here - to leave.
Bernie Gray, a former school board member, said that since the economy is being tough on city residents, "it's probably unrealistic to expect" a tax hike right now. He said it would be "not really fair" to residents.
But if a tax increase must be implemented, he suggested that it be placed on the city sales tax or meals tax instead of the real estate tax.
Other speakers said they don't want to see the council make cuts affecting essential services, such as public safety.
City resident Tim Jamison said he has read of instances elsewhere where deaths have occurred in fires that happened near fire departments that were closed due to a lack of funds. He said he does not want the city to face possible fatalities due to reduced funding for public safety services.
"Core services" such as the police and fire department "are very important. They need to be funded" well, said Bobby Phillips, Martinsville's emergency management coordinator who works at the fire department.
Lawson said that all requests for funding from city departments "will be thoroughly reviewed."�
She gave no indications as to what may be cut, or how much. Other council members did not speak about the budget.
City Manager Clarence Monday is tentatively scheduled to present a fiscal 2011 budget proposal to the council on April 21.