13 June 2012
The supervisors 3-2 vote last month to cut the school budget – which for a while threatened to leave the new high school shuttered – has spurred a new activism in Fluvanna County.
Informal groups calling themselves Save our Schools, Focus on Fluvanna’s Future, Fluvanna United and the Fluvanna Taxpayers Watchdog Association have sprung up seemingly overnight to promote their messages.
Focus on Fluvanna’s Future emerged from one Fluvanna high school teacher’s desire to do something after leaving the May 4 school board meeting. At that meeting, Rebecca Newman heard that because the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors voted to cut school funding by $2.3 million the new high school might not open.
Newman started a Facebook page titled Save Our Schools.
And people started talking.
That page helped get more than 700 people to the May 16 Board of Supervisors meeting. At that meeting the board voted to give the schools an additional $650,000. As a result, the high school is set to open in August and all elementary and middle school trailer classrooms will be abolished.
While Newman was happy the page gave some a place to vent, she quickly realized she couldn’t monitor the content and took it down.
“It certainly encouraged passionate discussion, “Newman said. “The trouble is, there was some name-calling and I wanted to simmer that down.”
She said the best thing was it connected her to another group started by Kerry Murphy-Hammond, Bill Sullivan and Overton McGehee. That group called itself Focus on Fluvanna’s Future. That faction is now 500 strong, counted by those who joined the Facebook group of the same name. It is a closed group that people have to join. Such a group comes with the ability to oversee comments.
While the first order of business is dealing with what the group considers the “underfunding of the schools,” the sky is the limit when it comes to the next focus, said Murphy-Hammond.
“We’re trying to harness the level of passion we saw at the May 16 meeting,” she said. “We’re not trying to push an agenda. We don’t want assumptions; we want everything to be fact-based.”
That includes being transparent, Murphy-Hammond said.
More than 100 subscribers are allowing their names to be used on the group’s webpage that should be up and running by the time this article goes to print, she said.
So far, a survey of 315 Fluvanna respondents done by Focus on Fluvanna’s Future shows the group to be quite diverse in just about every demographic: age, political affiliation and geographical location within Fluvanna.
“We are looking for increased engagement in the political process,” Murphy-Hammond said. “We acknowledge that a lack of engagement is what got us here.”
They already plan to have representatives attend every Board of Supervisor meeting, even if it means taking off work for the 2 p.m. meetings, Murphy-Hammond said.
At the June 6 board meeting, nearly 20 people involved with FoFF lined the brick walkway to the county courthouse holding signs encouraging fully funding schools.
During public comment Susan Seahaver, who was among the picketers, told the board: “I consider the actions you’ve taken to underfund the schools reprehensible….You ignored the recommendations of a study you paid to conduct (Robinson Farmer Cox) in favor of the desires of a small group of self-serving citizens who have chosen to remain anonymous. You ignored the recommendations of the school board in favor of a small group of self-serving citizens who have chosen to remain anonymous. You approved a tax rate that’s punitive in favor of the desires of a small group of self-serving citizens who have chosen to remain anonymous. We expect you to correct the problem you created. We are not going away until you fix this problem. You made a mess; you clean it up.”
Seahaver was just one of about 20 speakers who let the board know they did not believe the school funding issue was over.
Little is known about the two groups which have backed the supervisor’s 3 to 2 vote to hold down taxes in part by cutting the school budget. Fluvanna United took out a three-page ad applauding the board’s decision to raise taxes to just under 60 cents per $100 of assessed value saying, “The Board showed great vision and leadership.” Each of the three pages ended with the words “There is no money left, only solutions.”
Another group, Fluvanna Taxpayers Watchdog Association, paid for a two-page ad containing an opinion article by Andrew Biggs giving reasons why he believes teachers are overpaid on a national basis. Biggs is the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington D.C.
So far, no one has come forward and said publicly they are members of either Fluvanna United or Fluvanna Taxpayers Watchdog Association.
At the June 6 Board meeting, Mike Lawson stood up during public comments and gave supervisors copies of a survey that stated it was of 300 Fluvanna County registered voters and done on May 31. The copy of the phone poll said it was conducted by CCG, a national communications group. It included nine questions, five of which asked about Virginia governor and presidential races and demographic information. The rest were specific questions regarding school funding and impression of how local government and citizens acted during budget and school funding debates.
One question asked if the person approved or disapproved of how supporters of public education have conducted themselves in Fluvanna County. According to the poll, 76 percent of those responding disapproved.
After explaining the poll to supervisors, Lawson ended his comments with, “I am not anonymous.”
Lawson would not say who was behind the survey, who asked that it be conducted or what it cost. He said private associations have “the constitutional right to remain anonymous.”
In an email to the Fluvanna Review responding to a request for further comment, Lawson – who said to refer to him as an FTWA supporter – said: “There have been documented instances of erratic behavior, to include the disruption of a business with death wish comments and a threat on (Supervisor) Bob Ullenbruch’s store’s Facebook page to have the store burned down from some of Focus of Fluvanna’s supporters or their fellow travelers,” Lawson wrote. “The F.U. and FTWA members have business interests, children in schools (yes, parents are not unanimous on the school funding issue) and other interests with public exposure. Each has a constitutional right of free association, which includes anonymity, to specifically avoid the crap that the lunatic fringe running with the FoF has engaged in.”
Murphy-Hammond said the members of the FoFF will conduct themselves in a civil manner.
“FoFF is committed to positive dialogue and categorically disapprove of the comments a very small number of individuals in the community have made,” Murphy-Hammond said. “We have regularly monitored our Facebook site and consistently have discouraged any personal attacks on stores or individuals. The one or two individuals who may have crossed that line were told it was unacceptable and is not consistent with our mission of educating our community with facts and fostering productive and solutions-oriented dialogue between citizens and our government. Additionally, when we met with Bob Ullenbruch this past Saturday, (June 9) he also acknowledged that FoFF should not be lumped together with the 1 or 2 bad apples in the county and that he supports our effort to engage the community. He followed up that comment with a posting on FoFF’s site on Friday ( June 8) also stating ‘I am sorry for those remarks. I should not have taken the two threats as a whole of the organization. That will not happen again. I do not condone recent remarks made by others also.’ ”
Ullenbruch (Palmyra) has been a lightning rod for much of the frustration over the budget.
Ullenbruch told the Fluvanna Review that things have gotten to the point where “it’s really downright uncalled for. It’s been very nasty, bordering on slander in some cases. A political decision was made and when it comes down to threats and personal comments, there’s a line that needs to be drawn. It’s getting out of hand. It’s not a discussion anymore and that’s not a good place to be.”
Ullenbruch added that in the past few days, things have calmed down. He said his meeting with Hammond-Murphy resulted in a civil discourse.
“I just want to move on,” Ullenbruch said.
Where to go from here
Focus on Fluvanna’s Future is admittedly in its infancy, said Newman. They will decide in the next couple of months what formal structure it will take, such as whether it will become a formal non-profit.
“We want to keep it going for a long time,” she said.
For the immediate future, FoFF leaders are rallying citizens to keep the pressure on the Board of Supervisors to increase school funding.
At the June 6 meeting, Supervisor Mozell Booker (Fork Union) asked the county staff to draw up a motion to use $700,000 in E911 funds to put toward schools, JABA, JAUNT and other social services agencies whose funding was cut earlier by the board. Booker said she intends to bring up the matter again at the June 20 meeting.
While Newman said she has a re- awakened interest in all things political, her heart still lies with the schools.
“If I could change one thing it would be the community’s vision of what the high school is,” she said. “It has a 900-seat theater. It can be the center of the community.”
One taxpayer group said the activism is welcomed.
“The more citizens who get involved in government and offer input, the better,” said Elizabeth Franklin of the Fluvanna Taxpayers Association. “What will earn credibility, though, is if they become informed about the county’s total fiscal picture, not just care about a narrow piece of it. That’s why FTA attends meetings throughout the year and monitors the budget process – to help taxpayers grasp the county’s financial straits, the trade-offs and the fiscal consequences of decisions. So thumb’s up to more citizen groups springing up and more folks coming to meetings and learning what’s at stake.”