Navigate / search

Shine a little light

Government, and local government in particular, should be as transparent as possible.  In previous posts we have expressed concerns about the transparency of Stafford County government.   While the government administration has made strides to ensure the actions of the government boards and commissions are open and transparent, there is still much that can be done.

Currently in order to track the voting record or how individual members of a board voted on a particular issue it requires sifting through meeting agendas and minutes.

Over the last several weeks we have been working on a tool to easier track activity of our elected officials.   Today we are launching the Stafford Sunlight Project.   The project is a database tool that enables citizens to easily see how their members of the Board of Supervisors have voted on issues before the board.   The project is not mean as a “gotcha” intended to attack members of the Board.  It is simply a tool to give everyone insight on our government.

 

The intent will be to expand the project to also track activity of the School Board and Planning Commission.   Click on the image above to link to the tracking tool or click here.

School Calendar – To Start before Labor Day or After Labor Day, That is the question!

The Stafford School Board has been discussing changes to future school year calendars that could have students filling classrooms before Labor Day.   In a presentation by the Superintendent at their May 22 meeting members received proposed school year calendars for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years that sets the first day of school in the 2nd week of August.

The Kings Dominion Law

The idea of moving the start of school prior to Labor Day has been discussed by the board in previous years, however it never gained enough support among board members to be adopted.  Stafford County has traditionally started school the day after Labor Day.  One of the reasons for starting after Labor Day is Virginia’s “Kings Dominion Law”.  The Kings Dominion Law states that Virginia school districts cannot begin school prior to Labor Day in order to support the tourism labor force.  Because the amusement park in Doswell relies on high school aged kids for labor they advocated the state legislature in 1986 to adopt a law on school year start date.

In more recent years the state Department of Education has been enabled to issue waivers to the law.  Jurisdictions can apply for a waiver and be relieved for the post-Labor Day start date.   The state allows waivers for the following reasons:

  • Being closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of severe weather conditions, energy shortages, power failures, or other emergency situations
  • Being entirely surrounded by a school division with a pre-Labor Day opening and wishes to open its schools on the same date.
  • Providing instructional programs in partnership with another school division that already qualifies for a waiver. (Applies to only the opening dates for those schools in the division dependent upon one or more schools outside the division.)
  • Providing students with an experimental or innovative program – including instructional programs offered on a year-round basis – that requires an earlier opening date and has been approved by VDOE as meeting Board of Education regulations. This option requires a formal approval process and Board of Education action via application below.

There are many jurisdictions that have been given waivers and start prior to Labor Day.  The list of counties that have a waiver can be found on the state Dept of Education website. Stafford County could likely be granted a waiver for many of the reasons for which jurisdictions can apply.

The Virginia General Assembly has entertained and even passed legislation to abolish the Kings Dominion law, but the legislation has never made it past a governor’s desk (vetoed by both Republican and Democrat governors).  In the 2018 session all bills related to the repeal of the Kings Dominion Law died in committee.   We can be certain there will be bills introduced in the next session to call for the repeal again.   However, we can also be ensured the campaign donations from Kings Dominion will be certain to stop the legislation from making it to the Governor’s desk or being signed by the governor anytime soon.

Our neighbors and beyond

One of the reasons Stafford may apply for a waiver is dependent on what surrounding jurisdictions are doing.   We have taken a look at surrounding areas to ascertain if jurisdictions around us are all starting prior to Labor Day.  Below is a table of data collected with start days,end of school year days, holidays recognized and winter and spring break information.  In this we looked at the 2018-2019 school year calendar for each of the jurisdictions.   Many are still working on and have not published calendars for 2019 and beyond.  While the proposals Stafford is working on is for 2019, we can assume dates would be generally close to what is in the table below.

County Start End Winter Break Start Winter Break End Labor Day Columbus Day Veterans Day Election Day Thanksgiving MLK Day President’s Day Spring Break Start Spring Break End Memorial Day
Prince William 8/27/2018 6/11/2019 12/21/2018 1/2/2019 x x x 3 x x 4/15/2019 4/19/2019 x
Fauqier 8/15/2018 5/30/2019 12/24/2018 1/4/2019 x Y y 4/15/2019 4/19/2019 x
Spotsylvania 8/13/2018 5/24/2019 12/21/2018 1/3/2019 x y 3 x x 4/19/2019 4/26/2019 n/a
King George 8/13/2018 5/24/2019 12/21/2018 1/3/2019 x x x y 3 x x 4/15/2019 4/22/2019 n/a
Caroline 8/13/2018 5/22/2019 12/24/2018 1/4/2019 x * y 3 x x 4/1/2019 4/5/2019 n/a
Culpepper 8/13/2018 5/21/2019 12/24/2018 1/4/2019 x 3 x 4/22/2019 4/26/2019 n/a
Fairfax County 8/28/2018 6/13/2019 12/24/2018 1/4/2019 x y y 3 x x 4/15/2019 4/19/2019 x
Loudon 8/23/2018 6/7/2019 12/21/2018 1/1/2019 x y 3 x x 4/15/2019 4/19/2019 x
Hanover 9/4/2018 6/13/2019 12/20/2018 1/2/2019 x y y 3 x 4/1/2019 4/5/2019 x
Henrico 9/4/2018 6/14/2019 12/20/2018 1/2/2019 x y y 3 x 4/1/2019 4/5/2019
Frederkcisburg City 9/4/2018 6/13/2019 12/20/2018 1/2/2019 x y 3 x x 4/22/2019 4/26/2019 x

x = Student and staff holiday
y = Student holiday – staff professional/work/service day
3 = 3 day holiday for Thanksgiving (Wed.-Fri.)

 

Pros and Cons for starting before Labor Day

There have been several pros and cons expressed by parents, teachers and other staff on starting or not starting before Labor Day.  Many educators have stated a reason to start prior to Labor Day is to give students more time to cover material on exams such as the Advanced Placement exams some high school students take.   There has also be expression that more time to prepare for SOL exams would improve the division’s performance on the SOL exams.   However there has been very little evidence that the increased time will have the positive effects expected.

Many parents and teachers have also expressed a desire to have the first semester of a school year to end prior to the winter break.   With a pre-Labor Day start it would require starting school in early to mid-August to accomplish this goal. Dr. Benson, in his presentation to the School Board, said if you don’t end the first semester prior to winter break it probably isn’t worth starting before Labor Day.   Completing the semester prior to winter break would enable students to complete semester exams prior to winter break and not be burdened with them when they return to school in January.  Over the last several years Stafford has been hit with winter weather right around exam week and it has caused delays in the exam and even cancellation of semester exams in 2016.   Weather would be less likely of a negative factor in December (although not a complete non-factor).

A pre-Labor Day start would also give flexibility to the division to ensure students and teachers have a full two weeks off for winter break.   With the post-Labor Day start the division has struggled to schedule two weeks for winter break.  Often, because the days of the week Christmas and New Years fall on winter break has been a week and three days.

Bus drivers have brought up lack of air conditioned buses as a con to a pre-Labor Day start.   Having to transport children in the heat of August buses will be hot and uncomfortable.   This is certainly a challenge Stafford’s surrounding jurisdictions face and Dr. Benson addressed this in his presentation.  He shared that only 4% of the current bus fleet in Stafford have air conditioning, but they could be retrofitted with a/c.   In Spotsylvania they faced a similar challenge and now have 44% of their fleet with a/c.  Meanwhile Dr. Benson relayed that Fauquier county has zero buses with air conditioning.

Other parents have expressed that the reasons to move to a pre-Labor Day start have been focused on high achieving students.   There have been concerns raised about kindergarten aged students.   With an earlier start there will be more children starting as 4 year olds.

The economics of the change have been raised as well.   Additional costs of cooling buildings has been analyzed and included n Dr. Benson’s presentation.

Parents have expressed concerns about the need to change routine vacation plans with the school schedule change.   Many families have taken vacations in mid to late August taking advantage of greater vacation location availability.

Public opinion

The School division did survey the public on the topic.   The results of the survey showed a pretty even split between those who favor pre-Labor Day and post-Labor Day starts.   Parents gave a slight edge to keeping the calendar as it has been traditionally with a post Labor Day start and school division staff gave a slight edge to changing to a pre-Labor Day start.

Members of the School Board have conducted their own polls using Facebook polls and their results have shown different results.  Aquia School Board member Irene Egan had a polled that closed on May 27th, and it showed a 63% support for pre-Labor Day start with nearly 700 respondents.  Egan expressed her support for a pre-Labor Day start at the May 22nd meeting.  She has voted in favor and supported an pre-Labor Day start for the past couple of years.  That support has likely been heard among her constituents and it shows in the results of her poll.   Griffis-Widewater School Board Member has also had a poll open that she posted in a Facebook Group for members of the Stafford Education Association which as of May 27th shows a 69% support for a pre-Labor Day start.

Voice your concerns

The School Board has agreed to hold the information item on the agenda for the next two meetings and not voting on the calendar until their June 26th meeting.   If you have thoughts or concerns about the proposed calendar contact your School Board Member and let them know how you feel.   You can also speak at School Board meetings.  They will meet on June 12 and June 26.  At each meeting they have public comment, in which anyone can speak to the board for 3 minutes.   You can find email addresses for all of the School Board members here.

Here is video of the Superintendent’s presentation to the School Board on the proposed calendars

 

 

Brief Hiatus

We had to take a brief hiatus from routine posting due to time constraints.   However, we have been working on a couple of project to enhance content on Stafford County Forum and provide more information to our readers and followers.

Over the next couple of days we will be posting content related to:

  • Stafford County Capital Improvement Plan
  • Stafford County Public Schools Proposed Calendar
  • Stafford County Forum’s launch of Stafford County Sunlight

Board of Supervisors Adopts a Budget

The Stafford County Board of Supervisors adopted the county’s FY2019 budget at a meeting held at 2 P.M. today.   This follows a work session the board held yesterday at 3 P.M.  It’s disappointing the Board is holding meetings and making significant decisions about taxpayer dollars when few taxpayers and citizens can attend or even watch meetings.  However, there was significant coverage by organizations such as the Stafford Education Association (SEA) to report on actions of the Board.

 

The SEA and and members of the School Board were particularly concerned about the level of local funding the school division was going to receive from the Board of Supervisors within the FY2019 budget.   The Board of Supervisors had increased the tax rate to $0.99 from $0.965 at a meeting held earlier this year.   From a presentation given by the County Administrator in November it was expected by the School Board that at the .$0.99 tax rate the local transfer to the school division would be increased by $7.8 million over the FY2018 budget.  With that level of funding the School Board would be able to ensure school employees received the proposed 2.5% and there would minimal to no negative effects on the level of service in Stafford County schools.

With the lack of local funding the School Board may be at risk of being able to increasing the number of teachers needed in order maintain a class size reduction initiative started three years ago.  The class size reduction initiative has reduced class sizes in elementary schools capping the number of students in K-5 classrooms.   Not having enough funding may result in class sizes growing again the elementary schools.

The Board of Supervisors adopted a budget that only provides the School Board with an additional $6.4 million with hold back of appropriations to ensure school employees receive the 2.5% salary increases.   That will mean the School Board will have a roughly $4 million funding gap in their proposed budget for FY2019, with restrictions on when they will be able to receive full appropriations of their funding.  They will have difficult decisions to make that could have a negative impact on children in classrooms all across Stafford County.

The $6.4 million increase will provide the school division with less than 40% of the total revenue growth the county is projected to experience in FY2019.   Contrary to the presentation by the County Administrator regarding a five-year plan the Board of Supervisors declined his proposal to ensure at least 50% of new county revenue is dedicated to schools.   Over the last several years the trend of school funding in Stafford County has been a decrease of total county revenue.   With the trend continuing it is likely schools will fall well below 50% of the total county budget.  Where is the money going?   Social services has seen significant increases as well as the funding of contingency funds to ensure the county attains coveted AAA Bond ratings.

 

Drinking our way to prosperity?

This is a great podcast by local news source Potomac Local, “We tap into the health of the Prince William craft brewery industry”.  If you aren’t already a subscriber we would strongly suggest you subscribe to Potomac Local’s content.

In this podcast Potomac Local’s publisher, Uriah Kiser, speaks with proprietors of local craft brewery “Waters End Brewery” in Prince William County.  They discuss the rapid growth of local breweries in Prince William and Stafford counties, their impact on the local economies and the challenges the plethora of local brewers are facing.

Over the last several years both Prince William and Stafford Counties have adjusted zoning ordinances to allow craft brewers to open for business and grow.  In Stafford County prior to 2012 brewers were unable to open tap rooms and serve their brews anywhere in the county.  However, the ordinances were changed that allowed for breweries to open up tap rooms, serve their brew and open up new opportunities for locals breweries to expose the public to their craft, entertain and provide addition social and eateries in the county.   The first to open their doors was Adventure Brewery on Perchwood Drive in the middle/south end of the county.  They were followed by several others throughout the county.

The challenge for these local breweries in Stafford County is they are limited to exist only in industrial areas.   Prince William County has taken the route of opening up their commercial and retail spaces to the breweries.  There they have experienced exponential growth of local breweries, however, they have also experienced a number of breweries having to shutter their doors in more recent days.

While craft brewing has proven to be a boost to the local economy it also comes with challenges of sustainability for these small businesses that face a number of challenges.  In Stafford County it would be beneficial to the local craft brew market to allow for the breweries to open their doors in more places.  County officials should explore further adjustment to the governing ordinances and allowing breweries to operate in more commercial and retails spaces.   However, local entrepreneurs should tread into the local craft brewery market cautiously, as it is currently flooded with tasty brews, and has proven to be a challenging market to survive in.

One quote in the podcast that resonates is “over the last year craft breweries have set a record for the number of brew houses opening across the country, but they also set a record for the number of them closing.”