Citizens: Fund schools, no tax hike

Published 11:18 pm Monday, March 18, 2013

Suffolk City Council received a definitive message from a packed conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center on Monday night — fully fund the school system.

About half of the 38 speakers during the public input session pleaded with the council to fulfill the School Board’s request for $9 million in additional funding over last year’s allotment.

“Our teachers are doing way more with a lot less,” said Christopher Stoker, who spoke about halfway through the three-hour hearing. “Please let them do more with more. I’m asking you to please do what’s right and fully fund the schools.”

Email newsletter signup

Many of those speaking in favor of the schools were Suffolk Public Schools employees, including several teachers, a bookkeeper, at least one principal, a former School Board member and the School Board chairman, Michael Debranski. Several parents also pleaded for full funding of the schools.

Creekside Elementary School teacher Natalie Street said she spent $1,300 of her own money on classroom supplies last year and has spent $500 so far this year.

“I can no longer afford a $1,300 or $500 school year,” she said. “Let’s work together and fully fund next year’s budget so our students can shine.”

Other speakers had varied requests and suggestions, including funding nonprofit organizations, delaying capital projects, slashing administrative salaries and departmental budgets, and holding the line on property taxes.

Janet Gurwell advocated cutting planned expenditures to renovate buildings in Whaleyville and Creekside to turn them into recreation centers, pointing out that both communities already have recreation centers.

“There are many, many places you can cut,” she said.

The meeting began with a presentation from city Budget and Strategic Planning Director Anne Seward, who presented a dire view of the upcoming financial plan. A decline in real estate values has led to a shortfall of about $2 million, she said, and increased funding requests from the schools, city departments and other agencies equal $15.2 million. The city has yet to reveal its proposed budget and has not even officially received the final version of the School Board’s budget, but council members wanted to have a meeting beforehand to gather citizens’ concerns.

As Seward spoke, city officials were working to pack about 150 attendees into the room while maintaining compliance with the fire code. As the public began to speak, employees eventually wound up opening a partition to a portion of another room and allowing about 20 more people into that space.

After the taxpayers had their say, City Council members got a chance to speak.

“You have spoken, and I have taken what you said inside of me,” Councilman Lue Ward said.

Councilman Charles Parr said he had not heard the specific suggestions he had hoped to hear, with a few exceptions.

“It’s ringing in my ears — education, no tax raise, education, no tax raise,” he said, adding later: “I’ve heard, I want this, I want that, I want this, but don’t raise taxes.”

He suggested the school system could solve the mentioned overcrowding issue by redistricting school attendance zones, and said the schools should ask teachers for suggestions to cut costs.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said she had come to listen to the taxpayers’ thoughts at the outset of the difficult budget process.

“(I’ve heard) what people want us to do and don’t want us to do,” she said.

The city manager’s budget proposal will be revealed April 3. A public information meting will be held April 10, and a public hearing will be held April 17. The City Council is expected to adopt a budget May 1.