COMMENTARY: Spotsylvania Votes for Stupid

With a school system in crisis from more than a decade of underfunding, the Board of Supervisors took the low road Monday night and voted for willful ignorance.

Appearing on the New Dominion Podcast recently, Dr. Janet Gullickson – President of Germanna Community College – chalked up her school’s success to one simple thing.

“We don’t do stupid,” Gullickson said.

Spotsylvania’s Board of Supervisors, by contrast, specialize in stupid when it comes to public education.

Given the opportunity to rise to the occasion and do what’s right by the school system financially, and approve the advertised tax rate of 0.78 cents — which would have delivered far less than the School Board asked for but would have provided some much-needed funds — the Board of Supervisors instead voted to drive the tax rate down to an embarrassing level – 0.73 cents.

Supervisor Chris Yakabouski let his disappointment be known.

“We seem to be in denial, for some reason, that the schools don’t need this.”

And yet, the evidence that the schools do need this money abounds. Yakabouski pointed to previous superintendent Mark Taylor, who for years as county administrator zeroed out budget after budget on the claim the schools didn’t need the money they were asking for.

But when he became superintendent? He came to the supervisors in 2023 asking for roughly $12 million in additional funding, describing in graphic detail the financial trouble the division was in.

Accompanying him were the same school board members who earlier ran on or spoke often of cutting waste in the schools – Lisa Phelps, April Gillespie, Kirk Twigg, and Rahbi Abuismail. One of those members, Yakabouski pointed out, told him that “there was over $7 million in a slush fund.” When asked to show it, the member responded he couldn’t find it.

And yet there they were. They of the schools-have-more-money-than-they-need-and-are-wasting-it-all group standing before the Supervisors asking for a massive infusion of cash. “There was one thing they all had in common,” Yakabouski said. It wasn’t their ideology or politics. It was the realization that “the schools are underfunded.”

“If we don’t understand that,” he continued, “I don’t know how this is ever going to get better, because everyone around us understands that. All of our other competitors understand that.”

Interviewed after the meeting, Yakabouski made clear that the county was in a bad situation. And not all of it of the county’s making.

“I agree 100% that our federal government and state government have let us down,” he said. And for better or worse, the county is going to have to address it.

“The problems that we have are not going away. This unfortunately is the path we’ve been going down for the past 12 years. The issues haven’t gotten any smaller. One day we’re going to have to tackle them.”

Nicole Cole told the Advance Tuesday evening that “It is fiscally irresponsible for the Board of Supervisors to continually underfund the school division.”

The Board’s actions, she said, reflect “a lack of care for the majority of the citizens of Spotsylvania County. The majority of citizens are served by the School Division in one way or another. These are the school children, of course, but also the families of the employees.”

She noted that 74% of the FTEs in the county are school employees.

“The taxpayers voted in November for a School Board that would actually support the schools. We can’t now do the job they voted us in to do unless the supervisors fund us appropriately.”

Where Spotsy’s Headed

Like many counties that are experiencing rapid growth, there is a contingent of citizens – including members of the current Board of Supervisors – who mourn the loss of their rural way of life and want to keep things the way they are.

Spotsylvania, however, is no longer a rural county. A reality that is only going to become more pronounced in coming years. By 2050, this county, with a current population of a little over 140,000 people, will grow to include more than 202,000 people.

And many of the ones coming will not be satisfied with subpar schools that are perpetually behind those in Stafford and systems further north in terms of facilities and academic performance.

Highly educated people who move here and commute north will demand superior teachers and advanced educational opportunities. So, too, the 600-700 employees coming to our region to work at the new Veterans Administration hospital.

Doctors, nurses, and highly skilled lab technicians understand the power and importance of education.

The track that we’re on, says Cole, is not “taking us back to rural,” but backwards.

Tonight, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors spoke loud and clear that backwards is where they want to go.

They may deny it when asked. They may hide behind “no new taxes” pledges. But they cannot hide behind this fact.

Dealing with growth, educating the next generation, and creating an environment where families want to live comes down to one simple thing.

When it comes to good governance and providing superior educational opportunities, there’s just no room for stupid.

by Martin Davis