A steep cut to property taxes could endanger Lynchburg's public schools
Lynchburg parents, teachers, administrators and community groups are talking about their next move following a decision by city council to cut the property tax rate by about 20%. Much of that money goes to fund schools, and retired teacher Michael Bremer says it’s not clear what spending cuts might now be needed.
“Are we going to lose school nurses, coaching positions, behavioral specialists, secretaries, testing coordinators?" he wonders. "We don’t really know, and I don’t think council knows either, because they’re not informed about what public education is and how schools operate.”
Board member Marty Misjuns insisted schools would be fine. While the city will provide less than half the money requested by the schools, he claimed the system would get funds from other sources – although many of the state dollars are earmarked for certain things.
“The sky is not falling. We are not cutting a dollar for Lynchburg City Schools,” he says.
And he railed at officials who had warned that a property tax cut of about $16 million would hurt schools and services.
“I have a serious problem with our taxpayer funds supporting political organizing, which is essentially what Lynchburg City Schools did, releasing a press release last week saying that the budget has been cut. I’ll probably be proposing an investigation into the leadership in the school division.”
Elizabeth Short, who teaches middle school English, was one of those who had hoped the city would boost base pay for teachers to $50,000 – up from just over $43,000. She says the work has gotten harder in her eight years on the job.
“I expected some behavioral issues and was prepared for students with learning challenges. Today we see children with unprecedented barriers to learning – students transitioning to foster care, homelessness and those who have faced traumas our generation never conceived of. Eight years ago we had fire and tornado drills. Today we have active shooter and lockdown. We are expected to break up fights. I had stitches after a student punched me, and his knuckle went through my upper lip.”
Andrew Napierkowski, head of the math department at Heritage High, warned the city would have trouble attracting new teachers and difficulty keeping experienced educators.
“In 2018 I was named the LCS Teacher of the Year, and my SOL scores typically exceed the state averages. I say this not to brag, but to hope that I’m a teacher you wouldn’t want to lose, but you lost me last year. After you rejected an 8% increase last year, I looked elsewhere. A neighboring district offered to pay $8,000 more than I was making at LCS.”
Councilman Misjuns said even with the tax cut, there would be enough money to give teachers a $3,500 raise, but community activist Mike Bremer said that would not be enough, and he worries that a Republican takeover of city council is part of a bigger plan.
“They’re carrying out an agenda that probably started in the early 90’s across the country to really disempower public education. The Republican party wants to control what is taught. Vouchers didn’t really work. Charter schools in Virginia are almost impossible to start. Here’s another way. We’re just going to take over the finances of schools.”
Unhappy Democrats and independents like Owen Cardwell – pastor at Diamond Hill Baptist Church and a professor of education at the University of Lynchburg – said they are already looking ahead.
“There will be another election in the wards in two years, and we will remember.”
Lifelong city resident Leslie King was also hopeful.
“I think it’s an opportunity for people who are not in agreement with the current political reality to collaborate, find common ground and push back.”
And downtown businessman Ronnie Shoultz vowed to pressure three council members elected at large to move beyond their traditional Republican base in voting on the issues.
“You represent all of us, and so all of us are expecting you to do what’s right for all of us.”
Now in her 80’s, Doris Waller added that cutting taxes to 89 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value might be a potent political move now but would come back to haunt city counselors.
“You’ve got to know your history. It sounds good to cut it down to 89 cents, but you don’t realize your children in school are not going to have the education you want them to have.”
And Clay Williams figures Republicans will face significant criticism if reduced spending becomes a necessity.
“They made their promise without knowing what it would take. Now they’re lost in the woods without a map," he contends. "I don’t think enough people were paying attention before. The number of voters who came out to the polls in the last election was not good. Now I think a lot more people are paying attention. This is going to affect all of us, and it’s going to do damage to Lynchburg.”
Former mayor Carl Hutcherson predicted turnout from the Black community would be higher in the next election and forecast greater awareness if there are cuts to parks and recreation, trash pick-up, snow removal and other day-to-day services provided by the city.
“We’ll lose services that people aren’t even aware of – things people take for granted. We’re certainly going to lose some dedicated city employees, because there are people who are very hurt, very dissatisfied with what this current council seems to be doing.”
That was not the concern of Lynchburg’s mayor, who said she might have supported a smaller tax cut. After attending the funeral of a 6-year-old killed by gunfire Stephanie Reed said she was choosing her battles.
“I did run on lowering the real estate rate, and a lot of people called me a liar, because they thought I was not going to honor that campaign promise of mine. Today Kingston Campbell was buried, and if our city is not safe, nothing else matters. So that is the battle that remains my number one focus.”
That said, pediatrician Rachel Gagen warned of even more tragedies if schools cannot provide better mental health services.
“Since COVID, I personally have seen more children with depression than ever before in my 16 years. We don’t have enough therapists in the community to meet these needs. Our schools try to fill the gap, yet LCS still has only one counselor for every 500 students, while the commonwealth recommends one for every 250. Almost every week I talk to a suicidal teen, and I don’t know how to be more clear with you tonight. If you cut the LCS budget, homicide and suicide rates will go up. Our children deserve more, not less.”
Others feared the end of the city’s renaissance sparked by public investment in the arts and culture. Niro Rasanayagam moved to Lynchburg from Washington DC more than 20 years ago – planning to stay a couple of years, but she and her family loved the changes they were seeing.
“Downtown Lynchburg was revitalized. It came to life. It’s very vibrant now. There are so many more small businesses. There are so many more people from all over the country moving here, because it is a very livable city, and also there are investments in public education here, so we felt very comfortable here with the progress Lynchburg was making.”
Councilman Jeff Helgeson says cutting taxes will also spark improvements, and his political ally Marty Misjuns says the tax cut will keep people from leaving for neighboring counties where taxes are lower.
“You guys are going to be very delighted when you start looking at the city in five years + once we look out for our taxpayers. We’re going to watch growth, and we’re going to say ‘Wow! I didn’t think that would work so good.'”
“Taxes are way too high in Lynchburg. Our citizens are feeling the burden of poor economic policy from Washington that’s squeezing their wallets. Everything is going up in prices – eggs, gas – and we’ve watched businesses go across the line into Bedford County, because they’ve simply had enough with the outrageous tax rates in the city of Lynchburg, and the best example I can give you is the Toyota dealership that used to sit on Wards Road. Now it’s across the city line in Bedford County, and we lost all that revenue on personal property, on vehicles – all of it.”
There is one area of agreement between Republican Mayor Reed and critics like the Reverend Cardwell. More than half of city residents own no real estate.
“Roughly 58% of the population are renters, and to cut the budget from the city manager’s initial recommendation of $1.12 down to 89 cents – that cut only serves those who are homeowners and those who are investor owners. That cut severely hurts those who need goods and services that only the city can provide.”
Earlier Mayor Reed had shared the numbers. Owners of a hundred thousand dollar house could expect a $60 drop in their real state taxes while those who own homes valued at $600,000 would pay $360 less a year to the city.