Students step into supervisors’ shoes during Government Day

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 4, 2019 | 1:45 p.m. 

Engaging joint county-schools program enters sixth year

DINWIDDIE – Groups of supervisors faced down a challenge trying to fund a multi-million slate of requests from county departments with only a fraction of additional funding available to support those departmental needs last Wednesday morning at Ragsdale Community Center in McKenney.

The only difference is, instead of the county’s elected officials making the decisions, it was Dinwiddie High School government students who assumed the role of mock-supervisors during their day-long Government Day activity, where they were immersed in the ins and outs of Dinwiddie County government operations.

The Government Day initiative represents a partnership between the county government, Dinwiddie County Public Schools, and the county’s youth workforce development team that has flourished into a twice-yearly event where students enrolled in the high school’s government classes spend the day in groups serving as elected officials faced with the tall order of trying to weigh the pros and cons of different budget requests and how to fund the requested initiative.

Paired alongside the student-supervisors is a member of the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors, who helps the students understand concepts while providing their own real-world experience from years of facing similar challenges in the development of the county’s multi-million dollar budget.

 Supervisor Dr. Mark Moore chats with Dinwiddie High School students on hand for this semester’s Government Day exercise last week. In past years, county leaders have call Government Day one of their favorite days of the year as the event seems them partner with students who act as supervisors in the midst of a budget exercise. (Michael Campbell)

In similar fashion to their elected counterparts, the budget requests – ranging from a $975,000 ladder truck to aid in the county’s fire response, $200,000 for new equipment and support for snow removal efforts, and $100,000 for the hire of an additional deputy and vehicles for the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office, among a myriad of others – are presented by county department heads and constitutional officers, who pitch their proposals to the students and it’s their job to prioritize the requests and find a way to fund them, taking into consideration the county’s tax rate and the implications of a rate increase and the caveat that the student-supervisors couldn’t simply pocket the extra revenue and choose to fund none of the requests.

The challenging scenario fosters engaging conversation between students as they raise questions to department heads that can, at times, echo the same questions posed by supervisors during their own budget discussions in the winter and spring annually.

As is common during recent years of the Government Day exercise, the proposals presented are grounded in reality as, according to County Administrator Kevin Massengill, many of the requests vetted by students in the exercise are either based on or inspired by actual proposals that have been shared with supervisors during a budget season. With each department’s proposal being presented by their respective department head, a lighthearted competition between the departments ensues as each of them lobbies the mock-supervisors to get their need funded, which adds to the initiative’s engagement throughout the day-long session.

Prior to the start of the budget exercise, the students spent the morning learning about the structure of county government as Massengill and Deputy County Administrator Tammie Collins detailed the responsibilities of their departments, along with providing a breakdown of how $1 of taxpayer funding is spent across various departments, with education, public safety, and public works receiving some of the largest chunks of that single dollar.

The timing of this year’s Government Day event, which has become one of the key pillars of the county’s youth workforce development efforts, is fortuitous as earlier this month, the Virginia Association of Counties recognized Dinwiddie County with an Achievement Award for the twice-yearly initiative, praising the county and its leadership with creating a program that could be used as a model for other localities and an example of community partnerships.

Helping organize Government Day and other initiatives aimed at Dinwiddie’s young people is Cierra Gravely, the county’s youth workforce development manager. In an interview, she shared why Government Day, which is in the midst of its sixth year, is one of their most important initiatives.

“We are always trying to prepare our students to enter the workforce,” she remarked. “We find it important to expose them to as many careers as possible and show them the possibilities of joining into government, so I think this opportunity gives them insight into what it really looks like and how our board of supervisors works day-in and day-out to make regulatory decisions to ensure they are affecting the community in a positive way. So, this lets students see inside workings and potentially think this could be me.”

For Dinwiddie Supervisor Daniel Lee, an active participant in the Government Day exercise along with his fellow board members, praised the critical thinking and analytical skills of the students who take part in the yearly initiative earlier this month following VACo’s recognition.

County Administrator Kevin Massengill kicks off the Government Day exercise at the Ragsdale Community Center in McKenney, where groups of student-supervisors are tasked with funding a series of worthwhile projects with a limited pool of revenue to work with, a challenge their real-life counterparts face during their budget development process. (Michael Campbell)

“It’s one of my favorite times of the year,” he shared. “When the kids are talking about the budget items, they are very matter-of-fact. Everyone who presents has a valid request but there not enough money so it is a good eyeopener to see the kids analyze things and say what they can and can’t do.”

With support from supervisors and key county staff, Gravely believes having elected officials, constitutional officers, and county department heads part of Government Day only serves to further enrich the experience for students.

“Hearing things directly from the source adds a bit of credibility to the program itself so they can aspire to be some of the same individuals they are interacting with everyday,” she remarked, noting the event also has an indirect benefit to area businesses as the morning lecture by county staff saw the students quizzed on their knowledge of Dinwiddie’s biggest employers, such as the school division, Walmart Distribution, and Gerdau Steel.

“I think anytime we can give an opportunity for exposure to our students to what is in their backyard is a positive thing,” Gravely continued.

When looking at Government Day, the theme of collaboration is steeped throughout the event, from the student level as the mock-supervisors work together to complete their exercise all the way up to the top as the school system, county, and youth workforce development team work together to put this and other events, including the twice-yearly high school Industry Day events, the Teen Expo, and summer work programs, among others.

“Collaboration is key,” Gravely shared. “I think all of the moving parts of our organization affords for there to be support services on each side.”

According to Gravely, her department is now preparing for the Fall edition of Industry Day, where local businesses and organizations set up shop at Dinwiddie High to introduce students to opportunities that exist after graduation, followed by the Teen Expo. As for Government Day, a second session will be held in the spring for another group of Dinwiddie High School government students.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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