Illustration by Jared Boggess
When the roughly stenciled yellow billboard signs taking aim at federal taxation tyranny started appearing along the rolling byways of Hanover County about four years ago, they seemed not at all out of place considering the county's proud history of dissent.
Amid cow pastures and swaying fields of corn, the signs recalled Patrick Henry's own call for liberty 200 or so years ago. In most respects, Hanover's two tea parties ― they owned the yellow signs ― were like others around the country, but Hanover's sons of liberty were among the first in the Richmond area to focus near-equal attention on alleged tyranny much closer to home.
"I don't think our county is exempt," says Wayne Hazzard, one of a handful of tea party-aligned candidates who won recent election to the county's Board of Supervisors. "We had decided over the last 25 or 30 years that if we throw enough money at [government], it will fix it."
But if Hanover stands as an example of early tea party efforts to rein in local government spending, the past few months have also witnessed the county become among the first places in the commonwealth where an organized tea party-leaning insurgency now faces a rapidly organizing counterinsurgency.
"What the tea party tries to bring is some common sense in all of this," says Patti Davis. A parent of Hanover students, she's a professed fan of conservative reform efforts in federal and state government ― but not locally. "I feel as though Hanover County has been waylaid."
Davis is among the hundreds who've filled Hanover School Board and Board of Supervisors meetings ― not to mention individual supervisors' town hall meetings and organized public protest meetings ― to show their disaffection with proposed cuts to school spending.
Many are parents, but the movement found a surprising source of leadership ― teachers, in particular Chris Pace, a self-avowed fiscal conservative who's taught for decades and who happens to be the son of Jay Pace, the deceased but still venerated former publisher of the Hanover Herald-Progress.
Charmaine Monds also finds herself in a reluctant leadership role. A professed fiscal conservative, she says that after more than a decade teaching at Patrick Henry High School, watching budget cuts erode the 40-year-old building inside and out, she's ashamed she didn't speak out sooner.
"I've been a bad citizen," she told supervisors in January.
Budget trimming is a necessary and popularly supported course correction, Hazzard counters, one that tea party proponents are prepared to see through.
"I don't know if it became obvious to some people that the numbers were out of kilter; that we were building high schools that, let's face it, were kind of fancy," Hazzard says, citing frustration with the government basing budgets not on needs, but on how much it plans to take in via taxes.
In private industry, he says, "if you base your [budget] on how much you take in, you probably aren't going to be here too long."
It's easy to see why Hanover-area tea party members picked schools as a target of their budget concerns: The district in 2009 was paying the highest salary in the metro area ― about $244,000 ― for its then-Superintendent of Schools Stewart Roberson. And four years ago, before the tea party arrived, the school district accounted for nearly half of the county's overall budget.
On the other hand, successes included some of the highest standardized test scores in the state, the lowest dropout rate and an 80-plus percent success rate in sending kids to college, all achieved while maintaining the lowest or second-lowest per-pupil spending in the state. But the numbers don't lie ― schools cost taxpayers far more than any other county service.
It seemed a clear case of largess at a time when families were losing jobs and homes. This assessment translated well in 2011 with a majority of voters: Hazzard and others ousted a slate of already tested self-proclaimed conservatives.
"I don't know if it's a shift, but there has been a lot more focus on local issues for a couple of reasons," says Jamie Radtke, former head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots federation and a recent unsuccessful but popular candidate for the U.S. Senate. She lives in Chesterfield but is close with Hanover's tea party leaders. "People have realized they can have a lot more impact on government that's closer to them. ... I think people are realizing that when they look at who are their senators and Congress, they realize that those people used to be their school board or supervisors or state delegates."
The new Hanover leadership successfully reduced the school system's portion of the total budget to 44 percent by chopping millions over the past few years. In two years, cuts at the county and schools trimmed $8.1 million from the budget through job cuts and, according to the county's website, "maximizing work hours" for employees.
The effects have already been felt, says Kathy Abbott, another parent whose sister, Lorie Foley, vied unsuccessfully to replace Sue Forbes Watson when she stepped down as Ashland's School Board representative.
"We weren't hit over the head with these changes," Abbott told the School Board at one of its early budget hearings. "But over the years, the headache has been debilitating and persistent."
Davis believes cuts eventually will irrevocably harm school performance and property values in a county where home prices rely on above-average schools.
"I'm pretty conservative, but I'm pretty irritated as well," Davis says. "In general I agree smaller is better. In general I would say I'm more libertarian, in that I'd say, ‘Get out of my life, government.' But I'd almost say Hanover County is now intruding more in my life with these cuts."
Her logic is simple. The cuts have placed more burden on parents, teachers and others in the community to make up the difference.
Hanover's economy in many ways is unusually tied to the remarkable performance of its school district. The quality of the schools allowed property assessments to soar, and the county prospered in spite of a notable lack of a strong commercial tax base like neighboring Henrico.
That said, not all Hanover taxpayers find the argument for preserving school funding compelling. Scott Dailey spoke of his frustration after a late January county Board of Supervisors meeting.
"What's raising revenue for them is raising taxes for me," said Dailey, a mountain of a man decked out in the denim and well-worn trucker cap of a farmer. In fact, Dailey recently retired from commercial finance ― and he's equally skeptical of tea party leaders. "I'm keeping an eye on them."
Hazzard acknowledges schools as important to Hanover's success, but he disagrees that cuts are damaging.
"Some of what's being said is that Hanover County Schools are going to hell in a handbasket," Hazzard says. "This idea of listening to a few loud voices tell us that ― we went through the same thing with the fire department last year. You weren't going to be able to put a fire out in Hanover County. Guess what, I haven't heard one more thing about it."
Unless you happened to be ― as Hazzard was ― at a meeting held by Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Sean Davis at Rural Point Elementary, where police and fire response came up ahead of a brief presentation by Hanover County Sheriff David Hines.
Davis focused on the need to bring school spending under control. He told the crowd he wasn't sure when the county would "hit the floor" in its cost cutting.
For Hines the floor was easier to see.
"I've got to have more money," he told the packed elementary cafeteria, saying that while his department's response times remained largely unchanged, a budget that's fallen by a third in recent years will damage effectiveness eventually. "We're going to make it work, but it's not sustainable."
Hines, a barrel-chested career lawman with a broad smile, elicited some uncomfortable shuffling from Davis as he suggested that cuts in the budget may have reached their limit: "I don't want a tax increase, but I don't know how we're going to do it."
Hines, a rank-and-file Republican, hardly has the makings of a dissenter. Nor does Patrick Henry teacher Charmaine Monds, who was visited in mid-February by Hazzard and his School Board appointee Hank Lowry to discuss the situation. Like so many in Hanover, she describes herself as a fiscal conservative who's as displeased with federal largess as anyone, but after more than a decade in Hanover, she says she has yet to observe widespread overspending ― in some cases, even adequate spending ― in county schools.
"I see this as a fiscally strong decision to maintain what we value here in Hanover," said Monds. "Why should this be a political decision? No matter how you feel about the federal government, they can't stop us from supporting our own schools. Only we can stop us from supporting our schools."
The first shot in the counter-revolution came at the School Board's first budget presentation. A snore-inducing spectacle of self-congratulations and affirmations in the past, this year's session drew scores of teachers, parents and even students objecting to what they said was a dismantling of the school system that began right around the time those yellow plywood placards became the unofficial county tree.
Hanover's counterinsurgency, importantly, is no bunch of tax-and-spend liberals. Though led by teachers, the message has steered toward preserving classrooms because classrooms preserve public value.
Hanover County stands as an anomaly among metro-area localities, maintaining the lowest property tax rate ― just 81 cents per $100 of assessed value ― among the "big four" localities, where the rate hovers near a dollar. And then there's the business tax base. For the past 20 years, as Henrico and Chesterfield to the south enjoyed a business boom, Hanover maintained a more conservative approach in its courting of commercial and retail.
"Hanover has sort of always struggled with the identities of both the rural agrarian and the suburban center, and the not atypical pains that come with growing," says Bill Bosher, a former Chesterfield and Virginia state superintendent as well as the former dean of Virginia Commonwealth University's school of education. Bosher's own family hails from the county's east end.
"OK, you've had some of the lowest cost and highest performance in Virginia, and now there's a debate about whether that's valuable, and who's going to pay for it," says Bosher, himself surprised that Hanover Public Schools would be the focus of questions surrounding efficiency. "Where you have to start is not how efficient an organization is, but how effective it is. Hanover has one of the lowest costs, per pupil."
For Radtke, the tea party's growing interest in local government operations is a positive first step to greater civic engagement.
"I think what's wonderful about the local government is they will settle in a good place," she says. "These things are impacting [people] in their backyards on a daily basis. It doesn't so much become about party label as much as it becomes about those who are taking an interest in what's happening locally."
But for former Hanover School Board member Sue Forbes Watson, whose 36-year tenure ended last year after an open struggle in her Ashland district pitting the priorities of Board of Supervisors member Ed Via against pro-schools constituents, there's a much larger issue in play.
"The whole notion of providing for the public, the common good ― that dialogue shifted with the atmosphere people were struggling through," Watson says. "The challenge becomes one of, in some cases, what people believe government [should do] or services [they consider] essential. There's a difference in philosophy in what constitutes a civilized kind of world."
From 1997 to 2000, Chris Dovi reported on education and government for the Hanover Herald-Progress. His wife is an educator in Hanover County.