By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 18, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.
Twice-yearly exercise immerses students in local government affairs
DINWIDDIE – Hours before the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors would head to the county government center to act on the FY2020 budget, a tradition for Dinwiddie High School government class returned for another semester as a several dozen Generals became supervisors for a day tasked with the decisions that their elected counterparts face on a yearly basis as part of the annual Government Day exercise.
The Robert and Betty Ragsdale Community Center in McKenney served as the host for this semester’s event, a change from recent venues like the Eastside Community Center and former county government boardroom inside the Pamplin Administration Building as groups of a half-dozen students assumed the roles of supervisors tasked with balancing a budget in the face of well over a million dollars in requests from county departments with only $500,000 of extra revenue to work with.
Among the considerations the student-supervisors faced during their day-long exercise were proposals by local fire officials seeking a new ladder truck for a new fire department, employee raises, addressing a leak in the county’s primary water tower, and investing in new snow clearing equipment to help get roads passable sooner following heavy snow.
Each proposal, as has been the case in recent Government Day events, was made by representatives of their respective departments and constitutional officers, including the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office represented by Major William Knott, the county’s information technology interests detailed by director Norman Cohen, along with deputy county administrators Tammie Collins, Ann Howerton, and a host of other senior staff members within the county.
Deputy County Administrator Tammie Collins and Commissioner of Revenue Lori Stevens answer student questions during last week’s special Government Day exercise at the Ragsdale Center in McKenney. (Michael Campbell)
Government Day serves as an opportunity for those county staffers to step out of the office and share their passion for the departments they serve while also having fun with not only students, but among themselves as each representative works hard to sell their individual projects to the student supervisors, creating a lighthearted, but competitive environment.
Senior staff’s interactions go beyond simply presenting their proposals as they also spent time with each student board detailing the merits of their project while answering in-depth questions fielded by the student-supervisors. The proposals were also grounded in reality to further immerse the high school students in the exercise as many of the projects pitched to the student boards had been conceptualized in some form as an actual proposal to local supervisors in years past.
As students tackled the challenge of funding those projects they feel passionate about with a limited amount of revenue, they were able to lean on the experience of their elected representatives as each student board was paired with a member of the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors, allowing them to learn more about serving as an elected official but also gain insight into what considerations should be made when looking at funding and budgetary decisions.
Some of those decisions each student board faced as the prospect of being able to raise real estate taxes to generate additional dollars but, Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill explained that decision shouldn’t be taken lightly by the student supervisors as the low tax rate has served to support the recent economic boom seen in the county and could affect their ability to be re-elected in the future.
With Chromebooks, calculators, pens and paper on hand, students engaged in healthy debate about the merits of each of the ten proposals made by Dinwiddie senior staffers, sharing ideas, and discussing the rationale for why some projects should and shouldn’t funded in their mock budgets, all while understanding the student boards didn’t have the option to forgo funding for the projects and bank the $500,000 in revenue, meaning they had to work together collectively to find solutions to addressing the priorities of their constituents.
Over the years, Government Day has become one of County Administrator Massengill’s most anticipated days of the year, a fact he shares regularly in the weeks and days leading up to the twice-yearly events. Being a product of Dinwiddie County Public Schools himself, he said he was humbled to now have the ability to “broaden the visions” of the next generation of residents, leaders, and constitutional officers.
“This spring Government Day is mostly made up of graduating seniors so we talked to them specifically about what their future plans are,” he detailed. “But I also tried to explain to each one of them that it all about becoming a better citizen. Regardless of what field of study they choose and ultimately their job, they are going to come back to a location or locality somewhere. So part of being a good citizen is understanding that full piece of what your government structure is like, but I will say it is very rewarding to for me, from having gone to DCPS and knowing when I was graduating, that I wanted to get into government, to be able to give back in some way to these individuals and have them think about a career in government or ways to better their community.”
The Government Day exercise is also a key initiative of the county’s youth workforce development efforts, led by Cierra Gravely, serving to keep students consistently engaged throughout the year with last week’s exercise, this spring’s Industry Day event, the popular and upcoming Teen Expo, and the county’s summer workforce program, which provides students with opportunities to work with local businesses.
“We continue to be impressed with the caliber of students that Dinwiddie brings to our events,” she remarked. “The opportunities we get to expose our students with potential career pathways and being able to engage with them allows our students to be able to develop skills so when they get out into the world, things aren’t as intimidating for them.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Massengill, who talked about the county’s mindset of year-long engagement with county youth.
“The goal of this, initially, was just about creating programs that could impact as many students as possible,” he detailed. “As we add to the youth workforce development initiative, in many cases, we are reaching the same person multiple times, but in some cases, we just introduce people to particular aspects of the programs. Being able to get to the government classes at the school has been a great way of broadening the horizon of what we do there for youth workforce development and getting people exposed to those opportunities.”
Offering insight to the student-supervisors along with his fellow board members, Chairman William Chavis had high praise for the students taking part in last week’s exercise and the united partnership the county and the school division has and continues to foster.
“When I first got started on the board, I was like they were their first time looking at a budget… it completely lost me when you think about how large the budget is for the county,” he shared. “Seeing them excited to come out and participate is encouraging to me. They are our future. The students ask some very stiff questions so you need to be ready to answer them but, through that, it encourages me to learn more.”
Chavis continued, speaking to the bond between DCPS and the county, “It is about being equally yoked. You have to be pulling the same way and if we don’t do that, we are off balance. I think that is is good that we all have the same goal in mind to move forward.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Dinwiddie County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kari Weston as she spent time with the students, county staff, and elected officials as they all engaged in last week’s exercise.
Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors Chairman William Chavis provides insight to students during last week’s Government Day event, an event he said he looks forward to every year. (Michael Campbell)
“This is what our work is all about,” Weston said. “This is education with a purpose at its best and I am so grateful that we live in a community that shares that same understanding and purpose that we are indeed educating our workforce. Something like this is so important and it is great to have such a solid partnership with the county that assists us with this effort.”
She continued, speaking to the supervisors’ involvement in the local school division, “It shows me, both as superintendent and as someone who lives in this community, that we have elected officials who not only talk the talk, but they walk it as well. They not only talk about the importance of investing in a school system, they do it. They not only talk about making certain our students are ready for life beyond high school, they give up their time to sit here with our young people for an entire day to talk to them about that.”
“This is not just a one-time activity,” Weston added. “They are in our schools, they are part of all of our activities and there are a number of activities that we collaborate on so we have a group of elected officials here who actually walk the talk.”
A new group of student board members will take part in the event when school resumes in the fall during the 2019-2020 school year.