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The Race for George Washington

The Board of Supervisors filled the George Washington District seat with the appointment of Tom Coen.  However, the appointment is temporary until a Special Election is held to complete the current term.   The Special Election has been scheduled to coincide with the November 2018 General Election.

Candidates seeking the nomination of either of the parties had until today to file for the June 12 Primary.   For the Republicans only one candidate has filed.  Long time White Oak resident Gordon Silver has filed to run as a Republican in the heavily Republican favored district.  With no other candidates filing before today’s deadline Silver has secured his position on the ballot for the November election in the Republican column.

The appointed Supervisor Tom Coen was expected to file to run as a Republican as well, but he has announced he has filed to run fro the seat as an Independent.   There is no word on any other candidates having filed as either a Democrat or other Independents.   The race is shaping up to be Silver vs. Coen.

On the November ballot voters will also be electing the representative for the 1st Congressional District and US Senator.   Incumbent Congressman Rob Wittman is seeking re-election as is Democrat Senator Tim Kaine.   Both will face challenges from their opposition party.   The George Washington district is a Republican stalwart district.  In 2016 the district went almost 60% for President Trump and in 2012 George Allen received 52% of the vote over Tim Kaine.  Rob Wittman has always enjoyed a large victory in the precincts that make up the George Washington District.  This bodes well for Republicans lower on the ticket to capture the strong Republican voter turnout in the district.

However, the district has elected Democrat Supervisors before.  In 2007 the voters elected Harry Crisp to represent them on the Board of Supervisors and in 2003 they elected Pete Fields.   The Republican candidate in both of those elections was Tom Coen, who is now the appointed member of the Board and seeking to run as an Independent this year.  The voters having rejected Coen twice as a Republican candidate, will now see him on the ballot as an Independent.   The district demographics and boundaries have changed slightly over the last 10 years, but will it be enough for voters to reconsider Coen’s candidacy?

It will be an interesting race to watch, especially if only Silver and Coen remain as the candidates on the ballot.

Milde Announces Primary Challenge in 28th District

Former Aquia District Supervisor Paul Milde sent an email today announcing his intention to enter the primary for the Republican nomination for the 28th House of Delegates District.

Read the full email here.

Bob Thomas who defeated Milde and former Falmouth Supervisor Susan Stimpson in the Republican primary in 2017 went on to win the General Election in November of last year.   He recently completed his first session in the House of Delegates and the election for the seat will be in November of 2019.   Announcing more than a year and half before the General Election and over a year from the primary that will be held in June of 2019 is striking.  Given his primary reason for entering the race is Thomas’ vote in favor of the state budget that was introduced in the House of Delegates that included expansion of Medicaid, this could be more of a ploy to pressure Thomas into voting in favor of a budget that does not include Medicaid expansion when the General Assembly reconvenes in a Special Session to complete the work on the budget.

It was widely expected Milde would be seeking the George Washington District seat on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors in the Special Election to be held in November of this year.   Millde recently purchased a home on Lakeshore Drive in the Argyle Heights neighborhood in the George Washington District.   Abandoning the opportunity to return to the Board of Supervisors, albeit in different district than the one he represented for 12 years, Milde will now face-off with Thomas again in a primary.

Bob Thomas was supported by former Speaker of the House of Delegates and 28th District Delegate Bill Howell in the 2017 election.  It would be expected Howell will again use his significant influence and ability to raise money to help Thomas in 2019.

The filing deadline for the George Washington District Supervisor seat is today at 5 PM.  More news to come on how that race is shaping soon.

Budget Battle in Stafford County, again

It’s Spring and here in Stafford County that can mean only one thing . . .budget battle.   This year’s battle of the budgets between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board is shaping up to be one for the ages.

First a quick primer on how the budget process in Stafford County is supposed to work.  Stafford County Public Schools is an independent entity from Stafford County Government, and it is governed by the 7 member elected School Board.   The school division receives funding from a variety of sources from all levels of government, however funding from the local government makes up about 50% of the revenue side of the budget.   Local funding is appropriated by the Board of Supervisors through the county budget development process.  Roughly 50% of taxes collected by the Board of Supervisors is appropriated to the School Division each year.

The School Board develops its own budget, which they ideally present to the Board of Supervisors in March as the Supervisors are working on the county’s budget and setting the tax rate.   Below is a graphic to show the process by which each entity develops their budgets.

Click here to see larger image.

 

The cost of education, like many things today, continues to rise and the School Board’s budget reflects that.  This year the budget request by the School Board is roughly $17 million more than last year’s funded budget with a $13 million dollar funding gap the School Board is asking the Board of Supervisors to fund.   Items included in the School Board’s funding request include additional teachers to meet the demands of a growing population, additional Special Education teachers to meet the needs of a growing special education student population and a 2.5% salary increase for all school division employees.

As they have in the past, the School Board provided the Board of Supervisors with the list of items that they are seeking to increase funding and the items that are required by state or other mandate to fund.  The mandated expenditures are $5.4 million to ensure schools are staffed and supplied to meet federal, state and local standards.  The other signifcant cost driver in the budget is a 2.5% COLA for all school division employees.  That cost is $5.2 million.  Those two items alone account for over 50% of the budget increase.

Click here to see a larger image.

The request is being met with hesitation by the Board of Supervisors.   While members of the Board of Supervisors have indicated their support for the proposed 2.5% salary increase included in the School Board’s budget, they have expressed concerns that the raises may not get to the teachers when the School Board adopts their final budget.

The Board of Supervisors and the School Board held a joint work session to discuss the budgets on Tuesday March 20th.   Members of the Board of Supervisors had several questions for the School Board and their budget proposal.   However, several Supervisors asked questions that appeared to be digging for improprieties buried in the schools’ budget.

Aquia Supervisor Cindy Shelton went on a quest asking why some technology supervisor positions had been moved around from last year’s budget, to which she was provided answers by School Board members on how priorities are set and SCPS CFO Chris Fulmer on how the changes were due to a newly implemented financial tracking software and using position control features within it.  He further explained that the moves did not result in any increase to positions or costs.

Shelton also asked about priories to which several members of the School Board replied with how the Board adopts priorities and they are reflected in the budget.

George Washington District Supervisor Tom Coen dug in further with questions about Administrative Assistant’s pay and compensation studies.   Superintendent Bruce Benson and members of the School Board replied with the priorities the School Board has had several years to bring all school division employees salaries inline the market.   The School Board also rebuked Coen’s assertion that they board had recently paid for several compensation studies.  The last compensation study for Administrative Assistants was in 2006 and more recent compensation studies for teacher and other employees were done internally and not contracted to outside firms.

Coen also inquired about positions advertised on the SCPS website and new positions of need identified in the school’s budget request.   Coen appeared to confuse positions currently funded, job requisition postings, and positions in the budget request to meet growth needs.   Some positions advertised on the SCPS website are positions that the division has had difficulty filling due to certification and license requirements, however they also keep many position requisitions open that are high demand positions that they know they will need to fill.   Positions in the budget request are not yet funded and not yet advertised on the SCPS website.

Falmouth Supervisor Meg Bohmke inquired about a statement of zero-based budgeting and expenditures at elementary schools.    Benson provided Bohmke the answer on school funding and why school expenditures differ from school to school.

 

Late in the meeting Garrisonville Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer questioned the market based teacher salary scale with a what appeared to be an indication that the School Board should look at capping salaries for experienced teachers high on the scale.   However, as Benson responded to Dudenhefer’s concerns, the salary scale will correct itself as the School Board invests in the lower end of the scale, continue to provide all teachers a COLA and other jurisdictions that pay senior teachers less bring their scales up – which has been the recent trends.

The meeting wrapped up with discussion about school security  and action both boards have taken.   Despite Griffis-Widewater Supervisor Jack Cavalier having gone to the School Board at a recent meeting and asking them for input on what they need to improve school security, he and Dudenhefer appeared upset that the School Board had adopted a resolution asking the Board of Supervisors to fund a School Resource Officer (SRO) at every school.   It also appears in retribution to the School Board’s action the Supervisors have taken it upon themselves to direct the Sheriff to form a task force that has excluded school division officials to discuss and develop recommendations for school security.   The task force headed by Sheriff Decatur has been tasked to report to the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee, which meets “as required”, on Tuesday’s before the Board of Supervisors’ afternoon meetings.

 

COMING SOON: A look inside the County’s FY19 Proposed Budget

Benson leaving Stafford County Schools

News is starting to hit that Dr. Bruce Benson, Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools has accepted an offer to take the reins of the Alamance County Schools in North Carolina.

Details are currently unclear and Benson has not yet commented directly, but The Times News in North Carolina has broken the story:

Alamance County’s new schools superintendent comes from Virginia.

Bruce Benson became superintendent of the Stafford County, Va., schools in 2014. He was superintendent of the Accomack County, Va., schools from 2011 to 2014, and also served Albemarle County schools and Franklin city schools. The Stafford County system has 28,000 students, slightly more than the Alamance-Burlington School System.

Benson has a doctorate in administration and supervision from the University of Virginia, a Master of Science degree in secondary education from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, with a teaching endorsement in computer science, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in secondary education from Western Michigan University, where he majored in biology and minored in chemistry. He also completed the Executive Leadership Program for Educators at the University of Virginia.   More Here

 

UPDATE: Benson speaks to his new School Baord

 

As we learn more we will post.

 

 

Still a Cluster, but a smaller one

The Board of Supervisors at their March 20th meeting adopted a resolution that severely curtailed cluster developments in the county.  After listening to nearly two and half hours of public comment the board moved quickly to adopted a revised resolution to adopt a map that reduces the amount of county land on which a clustered development can be built.

This action comes after the Planning Commission held a similar meeting and recommended to the Board of Supervisors to repeal the Cluster Ordinance in a vote of 5-2.   The Board adopted their ordinance on a vote of 6-1.  Jack Cavalier was the only Supervisor voting against the motion after he stated he was not going to vote for appeal because the County Attorney had advised the Board was going to be out of compliance with state law if the ordinance was appealed.  He did not support the map that was eventually adopted because in his opinion there was not enough review and study of the new map.

Virginia state code requires jurisdictions of Stafford’s size and population growth rate to have a cluster ordinance.  Cluster development is intended to build house closer together and leave significant land as open space in rural setting developments.   However, the perception in Stafford County was that the cluster ordinance was not doing what it was intended to do and developers were using it as a means to build more houses.

BOS Sets Tax Rate to Be Advertised

The Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution to advertise the 2018 real estate tax rate at $0.99 per $100 of assessed value.   That figure is what the current tax rate is.  With 2018 being a reassessment year for real estate many in the county found their homes assessed at a greater value than last year.   If the tax rate is adopted as advertised at $0.99 the average tax bill will increase this year.

The Board of Supervisors received a presentation on the School Board’s budget and then held a joint work session with the School Board to discuss the School  Board’s budget request.  The School Board had a $13 million funding gap before any local funds are transferred to the school division.

The Board of Supervisors appear to be ready to increase local funding to the school division to help improve teacher pay, hire additional teachers to accommodate for student population growth and hire more special education and English as a Second Language teachers.  Both boards are also concerned about school safety and desire assurances that everything that can be done is being done to ensure Stafford County Public Schools are safe.

The tax rate will be advertised for 30 days.   The public can comment on the tax rate at public meetings of the Board of Supervisors or contact their member of the Board of Supervisors by phone or email.  In 30 days the Board of Supervisors will adopt the tax rate and at that time they can adopt the tax rate as advertised or can reduce it.

Mark your calendar

Stafford Growing Pains has a great rundown of upcoming meetings this week.  The rundown of the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Budget Committee and joint work session with the School Board outlines the challenges the boards face this year.

Some trivia about the Stafford County FY19 Budget:

  • The Budget Book is 448 pages long! Ugh
  • There’s a proposed 2% raise for most County employees. (School employees are considered within the School Board budget.)
  • The Public Safety budget (Sheriff’s office and Fire & Rescue) and the Social Services budget receive “catch up” funds to help them hire new employees to deal with increased workload caused by population growth.
  • Sports Tourism is an important element in our “Positioning for the Future” strategic investment.

The County budget was prepared prior to receiving the School Board’s funding request. In order to balance revenues and expenditures the School transfer increase was calculated at $3.27 million. The SB’s funding request asks for an increase of $12.43 million. The SB will present its budget to the BoS at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday with a joint work session immediately following the presentation. Both of these sessions are listen-only meetings for the public.

As Stafford Growing Pains reports, the meeting in which the School Board presents their budget is a “listen-only” meeting and the public will not have ability to comment on the School Board budget to the Board of Supervisors until their meeting at 7 P.M.  The Board of Supervisors has no specific agenda item on their 7 P.M. meeting regarding the School Board’s budget request.  In years past the School Board was able to present their budget in the 7 P.M. session of the Board of Supervisors, enabling more of the public to be able to attend the meeting, hear the presentation, hear the questions that the Supervisors ask of the School Board, and then be able to provide comment and input immediately within the meeting.  Questions of transparency can arise when the Board of Supervisors elect to conduct business of significant public interest in committee and during hours when much of the public is not able to view or attend.

The first item on the Board of Supervisors agenda in their 7 P.M. session is consideration of resolutions to authorize the County Administrator to advertise a proposed tax rate.   At this point the Board will consider advertising the tax rate at the County Administrator’s proposed rate of $0.965 or adjusting the advertised rate up or down.   The advertised rate is the rate that will be published and considered for adoption at a future meeting.   When the Board considers final adoption of the tax rate they can lower the rate from what was advertised but can not increase it.

The tax rate was initially on the Board’s agenda and brief discussion was held regarding it at their March 6 meeting.

The process in which the Board is considering the advertised rate could be cause for concern of transparency.   The agenda item, while in the 7 P.M. session of the Board and more members of the public can attend and/or watch on television, is not being done as a public hearing.  The public will not be able to comment after the County Administrator presents the proposed resolution and the members of the Board provide their comments and questions.   If members of the pubic wish to provide input on the advertised tax rate they will need to do so during Public Comment which at the top of the Board’s agenda at 7 P.M.

OPINION EDITORIAL: School Safety Begins Before Armed Guards

With the tragedy that occurred in Parkland, Florida the nation is in a national conversation about school safety .   There have been discussions that have ranged from banning certain types of guns to arming teachers in our schools.   The discussion has reached the local level where, here in Stafford County, the Sheriff’s office, at the urging of the Board of Supervisors and cooperation of the School Board has created a task force to analyze and produce recommendations to improve school safety in Stafford County Public Schools.

Stafford County Public Schools have made a number of safety improvements over the last several years to include controlled entry into schools through AirPhone devices and locked off vestibules.   The Sheriff’s office has a School Resource Officer program that dedicates a Sheriff’s deputy to high schools and middle schools.  There are also school division security guards at several schools.  Stafford County Public Schools and Stafford County have done a good job in being attentive to school security, and with the new attention to school security a good analysis and new resources will only make security in our schools stronger.

The national conversation has taken to the direction of more armed guards, allowing trained teachers to be armed in the schools and more attention to mental health.  Stafford County Forum is encouraged by the discussions, however we do have concerns with some of the proposals.  While there are teachers willing receive training and are fully capable of obtaining concealed carry permits and could certainly provide additional firepower to stop a potential school shooter this should remain a last resort.   Expanding SRO presence to ensure there is at least one dedicated SRO in every high and middle school, advocating the General Assembly to expand the ability to have armed security guards in school buildings and continuous improvement to physical building security should be the first steps taken.

However, physical security is the last step in the process of stopping a school-aged shooter.   The path taken by the Columbine shooters, the Sandy Hook shooter, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter to get them to the point of picking up a weapon against their peers likely started due to a lack of resources throughout their years in school.

There has been a quite a bit of discussion about the role of family and the fact that many mass shooters come from broken homes with no father present.   While those statistics do reveal truth, we have taken a direction in this country that we rely heavily on the public school system to fill-in where the parent drops off.   If we are going to be successful in this model we need to have the resources to ensure success.

Stafford County and Stafford County Public Schools, like other jurisdictions, have room for improvement in school security; and improvements that should be made.  However, those improvements should not come at the cost of necessary resources to ensure schools can reach every child and ensure none fall through the cracks and head down the path that ends in tragedy.

For example in the School Board’s budget request there is requested funding for Diagnosticians in all of our elementary schools.  Diagnosticians attend to various special education, IEPs and various other needs of students that need additional attention to be successful.   The work of Diagnosticians in many of our elementary schools is currently being done by Assistant Principals.  In addition to supporting the Principal, and doing the other work that Assistant Principals do, one of their important tasks is building relationships with students.  Enabling AP’s to have a few more minutes to build those relationships with all students, including finding that child that eats alone everyday and is just aching for someone to reach out to him, would go a long way to help ensure schools remain a safe location for everyone.

Furthermore, there is additional funding requested to improve a number of items related to mental health and student success that need to be funding.  It can’t go without saying even improving teacher pay is a safety issue.   Enabling teachers to be paid so that they do not have to rely on second jobs can help ensure they have extra time to spend with students after the school day.  Proper funding of everything we demand of our public schools can help ensure no child falls between the cracks.

In short, to improve school security arm the teachers!  That’s right! Arm the teachers, arm them with the resources necessary to ensure our schools are safe.  Arm them with resources to ensure they can have full commitment to the children in their classroom.  Arm them with resources to know no child will fall between the cracks and head down the path that ends with dead children in our school hallways.

School Bus Safety

Kids getting on and off that school bus is a dangerous time for the kids if drivers are not paying attention or do not obey the law for stopping for school buses.  As Stafford County continues to grow and more and more cars are on the road school bus safety is  a growing problem that can be difficult to address.

Many bus drivers will honk horns and attempt to warn drivers when they drive past a stop school bus with it’s lights on and stop sign extended.   Unfortunately, bus drivers and the kids are relatively powerless to do anything else if there is no law enforcement officers present to issues citations for violations.

With Virginia being a “Dillon Rule” state the local county and school division are limited in what they can do to empower bus drivers to report violations and cite drivers for violations.  However, a couple of years ago the state did add an option to the tool box localities can use to cite violators.   State code allows local Boards of Supervisors to adopt ordinances that would allow drivers to be cited and fined with a civil penalty based on video recordings from camera’s on buses.

B. A locality may, by ordinance, authorize the school division of the locality to install and operate a video-monitoring system in or on the school buses operated by the division or to contract with a private vendor to do so on behalf of the school division for the purpose of recording violations of subsection (§ 46.2-844. Passing stopped school buses; penalty; prima facie evidence.  https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title46.2/chapter8/section46.2-844/)

Stafford County has not yet taken the steps necessary to upgrade bus camera systems to record outside of school buses, nor has the Board of Supervisors considered the required local ordinance.   Stafford County school buses are equipped with cameras to record the inside of the bus, mostly for purposes of student safety, adding the required camera to the exterior of the bus would not be a significant cost per bus (adding the required camera to all of the buses in the fleet at one time would be costly).

The maximum civil fine that can be applied is $200 per violation.  By reports of school bus drivers in Stafford County they see numerous violations every day, and with the appropriate cameras and ordinance the fines would be a significant deterrent to drivers violating stopped school bus laws.   Collected fines can be directed straight to the school division to help cover costs of adding additional cameras, and making other improvements to buses and bus safety.

Rebuild, Renovate, Build New

Schools in Stafford County are planned to be built, rebuilt and renovated through the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) process.    There is much discussion right now throughout the county on what is needed in terms of new schools or rebuilding schools.

The CIP is a developed jointly by the Board of Supervisors and the School Board.  It contains not only capital projects for the school division, but it also is the capital plan for county facilities.  Projects include new county administration facilities, new and improvements to county parks, and improved or new transportation facilities.   Currently the county’s largest identified project is a new courthouse.  The courthouse currently located at the corner of Route 1 and Courthouse Road is reaching, and many would say is already beyond, capacity.   Judges have been advocating for a new, larger courthouse to house the activity.

A new courthouse has been discussed for the past couple of years and the cost to build a new courthouse have ranged from $35 million to $70 million.

The CIP projects are financed long term through the sale of government bonds.   Each year the Board of Supervisors adopts a CIP concurrent with adoption of the budget.   While the county budget doesn’t outlay dollars for CIP projects, as the debt from the sale of bonds is incurred the debt payments are contained with the budget and are commonly referred to as “debt service”.

The school division continuously examines their student enrollment and capacity at all of the schools within the county.

Over the last six months the Board of Supervisors and School Board have been working on a new process to score, prioritize and put projects on the CIP.   During the process in the Fall of 2017 an additional elementary school was identified as a need and was recommended to a joint committee of members of both boards to include Elementary School #18 on the CIP.   This, along with a new courthouse and a previously identified need for an additional high school caused other projects to be pushed back.beyond the debt capacity and 10 year outlook of the CIP.  One of the projects included in the list that was pushed back is a rebuild of Ferry Farm Elementary School.

Originally built in 1957 Ferry Farm has been on the CIP for either a renovation or rebuild over the last 10 years.  With the threat of a large development known as Sherwood Farm on Route 3 the Board of Supervisors and School Board began to prepare for the project that could bring as many as 135 already approved new homes to the Ferry Farm Elementary School attendance zone, by planning for a rebuild of the school.   The plan called for a school with a capacity of 950 students, 220 more than the current school, to be built on the property where the school currently sits.  The rebuild plan would allow for the current school to continue to be used while the new building was built adjacent to the current one.  However, the Sherwood Farm project faced a number of hurdles, was never built and does not appear to ever be built.   The need for increased elementary school capacity has greatly reduced for the Ferry Farm Elementary School.  The current student population at Ferry Farm is 660 and the school has current capacity of 729.   The school has also been discussed to be renovated, much as nearby schools Grafton Village Elementary and Falmouth Elementary were in 2011 and 2013.

With the moving target of rebuilding or renovating Ferry Farm it has not received a permanent spot on the county’s CIP.   With other priorities driven by school capacity and the need for additional seats for elementary and high school students in other areas of the county, Ferry Farm Elementary rebuild or renovation was not recommend in the latest round of CIP projects.   That frustrated George Washington District School Board Member Dewayne McOsker.   Over the last year McOsker has been advocating for Ferry Farm rebuild or renovation to be included on the CIP.

In 2017 the Board of Supervisors and School Board adopted a CIP that included a “wedge” that included a slew of projects including Ferry Farm rebuilt.  Those projects were examined, scored and prioritized by the Joint CIP process and Ferry Farm was prioritize below a new elementary school, new high school and new courthouse.   With those three projects the debt capacity of the county would not support renovation or rebuild of Ferry Farm Elementary School.

McOsker has continued to speak out for the need to rebuild Ferry Farm Elementary School.  On March 7 he held a town hall meeting focused on the “Ferry Farm Elementary School Rebuild.”

However, the support from the Board of Supervisors and even the School Board may not be there for a full rebuild of Ferry Farm Elementary.  The question will become how much support and how much debt capacity is available to support a thorough renovation of the school?