‘Government Day’ immerses DHS students into world of public service

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 23, 2018 | 2:20 p.m.

DINWIDDIE – Unbeknownst to those driving by the Eastside Enhancement Center in Dinwiddie last Wednesday, county boards were tasked with making decisions that would shape Dinwiddie’s future for years to come as they heard proposals of various scale from department heads while having to weigh how they would fund those projects with only a small bit of revenue left at their disposal as they finish crafting the annual budget.

While this sounds like a traditional day during the budget-building process for most localities in Virginia and across America, Wednesday’s event was just a mock scenario being carried out by members of the county’s leadership and school division with students from Dinwiddie High School and their government classes during the county’s annual “Government Day” event. 

Dinwiddie High School government class students debate funding projects as they work through the scenarios given to them during this year’s ‘Government Day’ event. (Michael Campbell)

Kicking off just before noon Wednesday, seniors from Dinwiddie High School’s government classes were broken up into groups, and those groups were their own governing body, where they had to elect a chairman and vice-chair to lead their board of supervisors and make decisions within the confines of this year’s scenario, which saw each group, four in total, be tasked with the challenge of hearing from nearly a dozen different department heads from the county, each of whom was presenting their own requests for funding for a certain project, such as a new $975,000 fire engine, $100,000 in emergency fixes to a county water tower, raises for county employees, additional staffing on certain sheriff’s office shifts, money for new snow plows, and funding of two new staff members in a county department that would result in $400,000 in additional revenue, among other projects. 

The only caveat preventing each of the student-led boards of supervisors from simply saying they support all of the projects; they only had $500,000 in additional revenue, and all ten proposals combined totaled just shy of $2 million.

Following the presentations, the student-supervisors dove into the tough task of deciding which of the ten projects they would fund and how it would be paid for. The students didn’t go in blind as each of the mock boards had an actual member of the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors seated with them during the entire process, offering their own insight into budgetary decisions one day after they had just unanimously adopted the county’s actual budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts on July 1. 

Dr. Mark Moore, Chairman of the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors, was actively engaged in conversations with his group of Dinwiddie High students as they debated the merits of each project and asked those department heads who presented the projects to visit their tables for more questions as they worked through their decisions and he shared his thoughts on spending time with the future leaders of the county during the unique exercise and seeing how they rationalized their decisions.

Members of the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors took part in ‘Government Day,’ serving as advisors to each of the student boards of supervisors during the exercise. (Michael Campbell/The Dinwiddie Monitor)

“The citizenry of Dinwiddie County that is coming through our school system, I truly couldn’t be more proud of them,” Moore remarked. “I feel like the morals and how they feel about other people, especially about reaching out and giving back, that is the message they are getting out of this. It’s about giving back to the people around our community.”

As the students dove into the discussion portion of the exercise, along with the challenge of trying to fund the right projects with such a limited amount of funding, they were told they couldn’t reject all of the projects and simply save the $500,000 and, if they wanted to fund more projects that would likely cost more than their expected revenue, raising real estate taxes was an option at their disposal. 

With that option came the advice from event leader and County Administrator Kevin Massengill that raising taxes has an impact on every taxpayer in the county and the county’s tax rate has been an incentive to bring business into the county. In addition, local media members were brought in to ask questions of the boards as they worked through decisions to give them a true sense of the budget process.

Each of the boards wrestled with the decisions to fund certain projects, such as public safety needs, including staffing in the sheriff’s office, school security improvements, and a new fire truck, while other projects were hotly debated, such as building a $30,000 skatepark, or increasing public information dissemination by erecting electronic billboards. Some tables even considered one-penny tax increases to try and make more projects financially feasible, which drew healthy debate among the student supervisors.

“If you raise taxes, people won’t see the one penny, they will only see ‘tax increase,'” remarked one Dinwiddie High School student as his board engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth discussion. 

Dr. Moore said he was thoroughly impressed with the level of discussion, debate, and questions raised by Dinwiddie’s seniors during the exercise.

As students, acting as elected officials, worked through their Government Day exercise, they used real documents and presentations from county department heads to help make their decisions while receiving guidance from local leaders, like Dr. Mark Moore, Chair of the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors. (Michael Campbell/The Dinwiddie Monitor)

“These are the future leaders of tomorrow,” he explained. “They need to know what we do presently to see how taxpayer dollars are spent. But, they also need to be able to see us as individuals and be able to get to know their public leaders.”

At the end of the 45-minute discussion, each of the student-supervisors’ chairs of the board presented their funding results to the group of fellow students and county leaders, who all enjoyed pitching their ideas to the board. Among the projects funded, all of the students saw the value in investing $100,000 of their additional revenue to pay for two new field auditors in order to attain $400,000 in extra funds to work with. 

All of the student boards opted to pay for the new fire engine by financing it, much to the happiness of Dinwiddie Fire and EMS Coordinator Nick Sheffield, who presented the mock proposal on behalf of Division Chief Dennis Hale. In addition, each of the boards supported providing raises to the county employees during the mock event, along with paying the county match for school security upgrades, adding staff to the sheriff’s department to address increase call volume, fixing the leak at a county water tower, and paying for new truck and maintenance funds to pay for snow plows, among others. 

As the event wrapped up, County Administrator Massengill opened up about why he considers “Government Day” his favorite day of the year, which was fitting as last Tuesday was the 12th anniversary of Massengill beginning as Dinwiddie’s county administrator.

“We always like to be able to share, especially with students, exactly what it is that county government is all about,” Massengill said. “This is very rewarding for me as county administrator to see this generation thinking about local government and the public service profession. For them to be able to come in and immerse themselves in the position of an elected official, which is the toughest of all positions because you have to weigh out the needs of the community with the overall financial responsibilities of the county, and to see them be able to take on that role and to do it in such a practical and thoughtful manner, it was encouraging for me to see.”

“Each year, it seems to be getting better and better,” he added.

As “Government Day” continues to grow in its scope and execution, Massengill remarked that a key part of its development is feedback and they hope to be able to continue to evolve the event. Currently, organizers are eyeing the addition of a public hearing element, where “community members” would act out reactions to certain items being presented to give student-supervisors the complete budget experience, from proposal, to discussion, to public comment, to decision.

He also praised county staff for their dedication to last Wednesday’s event as members of various county departments spent the late morning into early afternoon at the center participating in the mock budget meeting.

Dinwiddie Fire and EMS Coordinator Nick Sheffield provides additional information to students on his mock proposal for a new fire engine in the county to help increase the county’s firefighting abilities at the Government Day event. (Michael Campbell/The Dinwiddie Monitor)

“We didn’t want this to just be a piece of paper, we wanted this to be dynamic,” Massengill said. “You can see the highest level of directors to constitutional officers participating in today’s event. Their participation makes this event a whole lot more dynamic and allows the students to ask them questions. And we wanted the students to walk away knowing this is about relationships. Sometimes when you read things on just a sheet of paper, you don’t get the benefit of that, but when you see it and you can play it out, you can understand it a whole lot better.”

This year’s “Government Day” saw students walk away with a smile and better understanding of what exactly the government does, but also another example of the county and school division working together as one for the betterment of students, who will be Dinwiddie’s leaders of tomorrow.

“We wanted to be able to present yet another way that the county school system and the county workforce are two in the same,” Massengill said. “If we can get young individuals starting to think about these types of exercises and how we go about things, it is just helping to better the community.”

Along with Massengill, Dinwiddie County Public Schools’ Secondary and Career/Technical Education Director Carly Woolfolk and County Youth Workforce Development Coordinator Cierra Gravely helped bring “Government Day” together in Dinwiddie County.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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