Untangling the Arbogast mess

The escalating controversy over just how much Floyd County School superintendent Terry W. Arbogast is paid and where the money comes from dominates public discussion not only in Floyd County but beyond the borders and around the region.

At a meeting of the New River Valley Harley Owners Group Saturday morning, several people who don’t live in Floyd County approached me and asked questions like “what’s going on with that school superintendent of yours?”

Later on Saturday, at the Virginia State Chili Cookoff in Roanoke, a resident of that city took a bite of chili and asked me where I was from.

“Floyd,” I responded.

“Your folks got a real mess up there with your school board,” she said. “Isn’t anyone minding the store?”

An employee at Virginia Tech told me a number of less-than-flattering stories about dealing with our school superintendent, who teaches at the university as an adjunct professor.

The Arbogast mess has spread far and wide, overshadowing even a rare murder trial currently underway in Floyd. It has left an impression of a school superintendent who does just about anything he wants, a compliant school board that is out of control and a board of supervisors that failed to provide proper oversight.

Whether or not all of these impressions are true will wait for more details to emerge over a situation that allowed the school superintendent’s salary to nearly double during his tenure in Floyd County through a system of informal approvals — often by phone — by  a school board that is lax on procedure and apparently unconcerned about public transparency.

The decision to place an artificially-low salary figure for the superintendent in the public budget and intentionally conceal the real salary from county taxpayers who foot the bill for these excesses will haunt the school system and the board of supervisors long after Arbogast leaves for his announced retirement by the end of the year.

Several county residents are considering runs for the school board — including former county administrator Henry McDaniel — and the word on the street is that some — if not all — of the three school board members up for re-election this year will not seek another term.

County political activists plan campaigns to defeat any school board member who seeks re-election and that wrath may spill over to those hoping to keep their seats on the board of supervisors — which has a history of rubber stamping school board budgets.

Supervisors — spurred by maverick Courthouse supervisor Case Clinger — recently voted to increase budgetary control over the school budget with chairman David Ingram casting a surprising tie-breaking vote to approve the measure.

Arbogast blames the media — especially The Roanoke Times — for bringing the glare of public scrutiny on his salary and budgetary practices but the blame lies with the way he and a compliant school board have played fast and loose with the budget, including the use of salary money allocated for teachers to pay for his pay raises when vacancies leave extra funds in the budget.  That money could have just as easily been used to pay for teacher raises or turned back over to the cash-strapped county budget.

Although the unorthodox method for funding the superintendent’s salary did not technically violate any Virginia laws, it raises questions over whether or not the informal phone call approvals violated the spirit of the Commonwealth’s Open Meetings Law and the practice of not making the full salary public suggests an intent to hide information from the public and especially teachers who have suffered through too many years without a raise in pay.

The actions of the school board, its superintendent along with the “hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no evil” approach of the board of supervisors have left a big public stain on the reputation of Floyd County’s educational system.

That stain will not wash away with bluster, propaganda or CYA “we are not crooks” resolutions by the school board. Only a housecleaning and honesty with the public will begin the slow rebuilding process of trust with the public the system is supposed to serve.

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