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Opinion Editorial: No Need to Change the Calendar

The Stafford County School Board is currently considering a major change in the School Year Calendar that could result in students returning to the classroom  in early August.   The proposed change would take effect in the 2019-2020 School Year.

We have previously reported on the calendar proposals that includes an option to begin school in the second week of August and end the last week of May.  Several surrounding counties (all that Stafford County share a border with) have made the change to a pre-Labor Day start for their school year. Stafford is now considering following suit.

The proposed change has been discussed over the past couple of years and the one thing that is clear is there is no clear consensus on the preference of all the stakeholders.   As we reported the most recent pulse taken, in late 2017, the school division administration surveyed parents and staff and both resulted in a near 50-50 split on preference to start before or after Labor Day.

Proponents of a pre-Labor Day start have pointed towards the benefits of being able to complete the first semester of the school year before Winter Break, the added time to prepare for Advance Placement testing, and being able to close out the school year soon after SOL tests complete.   Opponents to pre-Labor Day start have concerns about disruption to family vacation plans, hotter days of August in school buses and in school buildings, and disruption to student schedules  that benefit from the current schedule.

There has been little evidence presented that show true pros and cons of a pre-Labor Day start.   Recently the state of Maryland conducted a study and found economic benefits of starting school after Labor Day, but there was very little evidence of student achievement changes.  There have been other studies including one from 2015 reported on by the Virginia Pilot – that, low and behold, focused on the economic benefits of starting post-Labor Day.  One thing is clear with the studies of this issue; state governments need to not look at schools as pawns in their greater game of economic development.  The education of our children should focus on student achievement and not how many days Kings Dominion can be open.  Local control of the school divisions needs to be supported by state legislators. . .but we digress.

Another point of discussion has been the cost difference between a pre and post Labor Day start.   Costs of air conditioning all buildings  with a pre-Labor Day start  could cause a spike in energy costs.   However, in Dr. Benson’s presentation an analysis done by division leadership found there could be a net savings between increased cost in August and savings in June.    Stafford County also has very few buses (only 4% of the fleet) that currently have air conditioning. While members of the School Board who support a pre-Labor Day start have stated retrofitting all school buses with air conditioning is a must, it will be a costly effort to retrofit buses and maintain air conditioning in all buses.  School Board Member Dewayne McOsker (George Washington District) estimates the cost as much as $1.6 million to retrofit buses.

There is no clear answer to the dilemma the School Board faces.   However, the wrong answer is to make a change to the School Year Calendar just because everyone else is doing it.  Without a clear understanding, plan and disclosure on how the added costs of making a change will be covered now is not the right time.  The school division is severely underfunded by the Board of Supervisors and adding cost will hurt no one more than the school division staff.   Stafford County educators and other staff have long fought for better pay; a burden they fight year and year out, sometimes with wins most times with losses.   Adding costs to the school division when funding is so scarce is going to make their battle that much more difficult.   Stafford County will again struggle to retain teachers and will continue to be faced with understaffed schools leading us back to over crowded classrooms.

In our opinion now is not the right time for Stafford County Public Schools to join the crush of those around us to change the School Year Calendar to a pre-Labor Day start.

First making such a drastic change in one year from starting the day after Labor Day to nearly a month prior in the second week of August will be difficult for many families to adjust.  If there is a desire the School Board should phase it in over a period of two or three years.

Second with no solid documented evidence on the benefits of a pre-Labor Day start the School Board should wait and see.   While other jurisdictions have made a change there is a great opportunity for Stafford County Public Schools to collect data and study if there are any true benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

Third with uncertain costs the risks are too high for the School Board to make a change.  The School Board needs to be very cautious about how it spends valued taxpayer money.   The focus over the last several years has been to improve compensation models to enable improved compensation for employees.  There has been too much progress made on that front to put it all at risk now.   Unless the School Board can document an agreement with the Board of Supervisors that any changes in costs due to a pre-Labor Day start will be covered by a direct matching increase in funding the School Board should not risk the increased cost to the detriment of potential salary enhancements.   While there are benefits for the instructional staff of additional planning time and time off for Winter Break with a pre-Labor Day start, not all division staff will have the same benefits.

Fourth four years ago the Stafford County School Board adopted a Strategic Plan for the division.   There has been little direct correlation between this decision and the Strategic Plan.  Proponents may point to Student Achievement goals within the Strategic Plan, but with little evidence to demonstrate student achievement benefits in a pre-Labor Day start change the argument does not hold much water.    The School Board should remain committed to making decisions aligned with the Strategic Plan.  With no clear evidence of a benefit for student achievement and potential detriments to staff compensation the School Year Calendar should not be changed.

Finally, Dr. Bruce Benson, Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools, announced his resignation earlier this year.  The School Board is in the midst of a Superintended search to identify Benson’s replacement.   Making such a major change to the school division as a new leader is being sought is not wise.  Potential candidates should be asked about school year calendars during the interview process and be able to articulate their position on a pre or post Labor Day start or their views on how to best optimize the school year calendar.   The new Superintendent should have the opportunity to evaluate the as-is situation with Stafford County Public Schools.  Making such a large disruption in the school division and in the community can make for a very difficult situation for the new Superintendent to adjust to.   It has the potential of setting up the new leader for failure from day one.   The School Board should not change the calendar at this time and enable the new Superintendent to influence the process provide input and look to future years to study surrounding county pros and cons to a pre-Labor Day start and make a decision on a future calendar.

The worst thing the School Board could do at the moment is make a change to the 2019-2020 School Year Calendar and in the relative short term determine it was a wrong decision and return to a post-Labor Day start in less than five years.   The evidence should be clear that a change will benefit student achievement, be accepted by the community, be appropriately funded and not be detrimental to Stafford County Public Schools’ employees.  With the absence of all of these points the School Board, in our opinion, should not adopt a 2019-2020 School Year Calendar that starts before Labor Day.  The School Board should work with the new Superintendent to set a clear path to study pros and cons of school year calendar options and make a decision on future calendars that is in-line with the Strategic Plan, benefits student achievement and improves the work environment for employees.

 

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.”

2018 Tax Rate Adopted

The Board of Supervisors voted to adopt tax rates for 2018 as a part of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget process.   The tax rate that garnered the most attention was the real estate tax rate.   Unanimously the Board voted to set the tax rate at $0.99.

Speaking to their support of teachers, fire and rescue, law enforcement and county employees Supervisors stated they were willing to set the rate at $.99 that will effectively be an increase on the average tax bill in the county, to ensure their priorities were funded.   Supervisor Maurer made it clear that  the rate at $0.99 will not fully fund the School Board’s funding request.  In order to fully fund the school’s request, according to Maurer, it would require a rate of $1.05.   Several Supervisors stated that they will encourage and watch the School Board to ensure the money they allocate to schools provides the 2.5% across the board salary increases.

 

County Budget

We have been planning to do a deep dive into the FY19 Stafford County Budget.  Unfortunately we didn’t realize the level of effort that would take.

First the only document on-line, at the time of this writing, is the FY2019 Proposed Budget that was prepared by the County Administrator.   The Board of Supervisors does not typically develop other documents during their discussions while working on the budget.  Furthermore the Board does very little discussing of the budget during meetings that are recorded on video.  Often discussion occurs during committee meetings of the Finance and Budget Committee, whose meetings are not recorded.   The full Board will discuss the budget in a future Board meeting and will eventually adopt the final budget.

The proposed budget was developed with a tax rate of $0.965 which is the equalized rate intended to not change the average tax bill for Stafford County home owners. We have previously detailed the level of education funding in the proposed budget.   The Supervisors, in various meetings, have nearly unanimously indicated their desire to ensure school employees receive a 2.5% salary increase, as proposed by the School Board’s budget.   To that end the Supervisors have advertised the tax rate at $0.99.  It is expected they will adopt that rate when they adopt the final budget.  That rate will provide additional revenue that is expected to be dedicated to education enabling the School Board to provide raises to school division employees.

Reviewing the FY2019 Proposed Budget – budget book is more challenging than expected.   The online version of the budget is nearly 450 pages long.  It’s always concerning when public bodies expand their budget presentations and documents.   Public body budgets should be simple to read, concise and not filled with useless filler intended to distract the reader.  We will withhold judgement as to whether that is the intent of the the county’s budget book, however there is much more material than necessary within it.

The budget book is structured by chapter with a second chapter that is over 40 pages long that contains documents and parts of documents such as the Comprehensive Plan,  BOS Financial Guidelines and other guiding documents.   As we chronicled in a previous post the county lacks a single Strategic Plan and relies on several plans and documents guide priorities and direction.  The County Administrator included these plans in the budget, presumably to provide some sort of measure of success of the budget meeting the goals of the documents.

As we dive into the financial information of the budget itself it starts with information about the revenue side of the ledger.  However, we are going to focus our time on the expenditure side.    Starting on Page 114 of the document the County Administration expenditures and FY19 budgeted items are laid out.  Well at least some of the information.   The budget summary is limited to two lines, Personnel and Operating.   While there are two data points of previous years actual expenditures FY 18 is only represented with what was budgeted in last year’s budget and budgeted amount for FY 17 is not included.   It makes it difficult to see any trends in budgeted versus actual costs and analyze how the county administration and Board is doing hitting the marks on budgeting accuracy.

Furthermore, the Board of Supervisors has been critical of the School Board for having spent money and budgeted for professional development for school staff.  However, it is interesting that in the call out it states there is increases to funding for “seminars and conferences based on historical data.”   The only unfunded items listed are a total of $2,000 for webinars and leadership courses.

The budget continues to go through each county government department.   It’s interesting that there are a number of additional positions added throughout the county government and a number of funding increases.

Members of the Board of Supervisors have stated their commitment and priority to education and ensuring teachers get 2.5% raises in this years budget.  In order to accomplish that the BOS has been very critical of every line of spending proposed by the School Board.  It will be interesting to watch to see if they will be as critical of their own budget as they are of the schools’.   It is obvious there are plenty of opportunities to scrub the county budget to find savings and help the BOS meet their goals.

A particular interesting section of the county budget is the section on Economic Development.  Supervisors, and Rockhill Supervisor Wendy Maurer in particular, were critical of the accuracy of data the School Board provided in student population,  budget numbers and staffing requirements.   They are right to press the School Board on accuracy of data, but the Board of Supervisors should want to ensure data in the county’s budget is accurate as well.  In the Economic Development Department section there is a call out box with department accomplishments.   There are items the department is chalking up as accomplishments, but there should be scrutiny on the claims.  At least one of the companies listed in the section taking credit for adding jobs and leasing corporate space is nothing more than a corporate name change.

DXC is listed in the call box.  The company is a new corporate name for HP Government services.  They are a large contractor supporting Marine Corps IT services.  They lease space in a building on Woodstream Drive.   The company name changed in 2017 and the amount of space leased did not change and the number of jobs did not change.  The good news for Stafford County Economic Development is the company is set to change it’s name again this year . . .perhaps they can take credit for jobs and leased space for the same company again next year.

Another peculiar thing they list as an accomplishment is Aquia Town Center . . .things that make you go hmmm?

How do you define insanity?

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”  -W. Edwards Deming

For years the School Board and Board of Supervisors have developed the county’s Capital Improvement Plan by first the School Board setting their priorities and adopting their version of the plan.   The School Board would then send their plan over to the Board of Supervisors who would take a look at the proposed School Board projects, combine them with county projects, re-prioritize the whole list, then adopt the county’s Capital Improvement Plan.   Projects the School Board prioritize and included in their plan may or may not have remained on the final plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors.   The school division would have to live with whatever the county adopted as the final plan.

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is how the county plans and finances large expense projects.   Capital Improvement Plans are typically reserved for new buildings, renovation of existing buildings and park and transportation projects. The plan details estimated costs and the availability of debt from year to year.

Due to the way the county has developed the CIP for years projects get promoted and demoted on the list somewhat randomly.  The current way of doing it  gives members of the Board of Supervisors more powerful to advocate or eliminate projects than School Board members.   It also enables stronger voiced members to advocate louder for projects in their districts over broader county needs.   Over the years this had lead to situations like Ferry Farm Elementary School continuously being pushed down a list of priority and not being considered for renovation or rebuild in a timely manner.

In 2017 the two board embarked on a fix to the CIP process to adopt an actual process in which the needs of the county as a whole were examined above political or personal motivations of individual board members.   The new process involved a review by committees of staff from both the school division and county administration to analyze needs, projects and prioritization.   The staff committee recommendations were then sent to a joint committee of equal number of Supervisors and School Board Members to review the recommendations.

 

In August of 2017 both boards adopted the CIP process unanimously.    In November of 2017 the two boards held the joint CIP committee meetings and discussed the projects.   There was concern expressed by various members of both boards about various projects.  Three projects of particular note were the new courthouse and whether it would be planned for the full $70 million replacement cost, or if it would be built in phases.   A second project that created discussion was the rebuild of renovation of Ferry Farm Elementary School.  And the final project of significant discussion was whether the School Board should move forward on purchasing the now vacant building owned by the Fredericksburg Christian School in north Stafford.   The FCS school building is proposed to be purchased to help add capacity to the school division and potentially house parts of the division’s preschool classrooms.

After three meetings the members of the joint committee came to a decision, with some information still pending to be collected and decided up on about the courthouse rebuild, to take the recommendation back to their respective boards and continue moving forward in the process.

Somewhere along the way wires got crossed and the process fell apart.  Both boards have now reverted back to the old way of developing the CIP and it appears to be ready to create strife between the boards once again.   The School Board considered and adopted their version of the CIP at their April 11 meeting.   They have adopted the following school division projects in the following order of priority: 1. Purchase and Renovate Fredericksburg Christian School building, 2. Renovate Ferry Farm Elementary School 3. Build High School #6 4. Rebuild Hartwood Elementary School 5. Build Elementary School #18

The sole vote against the CIP was cast by Aquia District School Board member Irene Egan, who has long advocated and supported the development of the new CIP process, citing her reason for voting “no” was due the CIP not being developed within the guidelines of the newly adopted CIP process.

The CIP is now in the court of the Board of Supervisor.  They will need to decide how to work the School Board’s priorities into those of the county and may or may not accept the priorities as the School Board has sent them over to the BOS.

Strategy and Priorities

A well-managed modern organization should have a well developed Strategic Plan with clearly defined priorities and strategies to inform leadership and the organization’s stake-holders of where it is going and how it going to get there.

In this year’s budget battle there has been a lot of questions about priorities.  In particular members of the Board of Supervisors questioning what the priorities of the School Board are and how they are reflected within the school divisions funding request.   Supervisor Shelton in particular asked the School Board about priorities during the March  20th joint hearing.

However, as members of the School Board pointed out to the Supervisors, the board annually adopts budget goals and priorities and they are printed within the budget book provided to Supervisors.   Furthermore, a quick search of the school division’s website the SCPS 2017-2022 Strategic Plan can be found.   The Strategic Plan clearly lays out the strategy and priorities of the division and School Board.

A particular issue of concern for recently appointed Supervisor from the George Washington District, Tom Coen is the expense of a professional development opportunity for county teachers – the Teaching and Learning Summit.  In questions Coen forwarded to the Superintendent after the joint hearing he indicated scrapping the Teaching and Learning Summit could reduce school division costs by $400,000.  Coen has been critical of the division provided professional development opportunity in other pubic settings as well.

However, the School Board has clearly made the professional development opportunity a priority that it desires to provide to school division employees.  In the FY17 budget the School Board included the following in the budget priorities for that year “Provide additional funding for professional development”, in FY 18 the following priorities were presented by the School Board in their adopted budgets “Fund professional development program for all SCPS staff to enhance skills”, “Fund phased computer initiative for teachers and staff to assist in classroom skills.”

Furthermore within the SCPS Strategic Plan the School Board also identifies professional development as a priority.  In Board Priority 1.1 of the SCPS Strategic Plan the School Board makes this statement “Provide professional learning opportunities to expand capacity of staff to support students developing critical thinking, creativity, citizenship, communication and collaboration skills, and wellness across content areas,” and in Board Priority 2.3 “Expand professional growth opportunities for all employees.”

The School Board’s budget priorities and Strategic Plan further detail their priority on staff compensation and student achievement.   The Strategic Plan identifies what the division values and where the School Board would like to drive the division.

So where is the county and the Board of Supervisor with their priorities and Strategic Planning?   If you Google “Stafford County Strategic Plan” you get results that lead you to a couple of documents and plans that inform you about the direction of the county.   However, there is no one Strategic Plan for the county.

A web page titled “Board Priorities for the Community” is undated, but appears to have been written in 2013.  The page references the 350 anniversary of Stafford County, the renovation of Grafton Elementary School and an economic development plan to attract data centers to the county.

The strategic direction of the county is contained in multiple documents, including the Comprehensive Plan, the BOS Financial Policies, and the Economic Development Strategic Plan.  All of the documents and plans that feed the strategy are detailed in this table.

The county severely lacks a well defined strategic plan and vision for the future.   Furthermore there are no discernible measures for success to enable residents of the county to determine if the county’s leadership strategy is meeting the goals of the county or not.