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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Budget Public Hearing – Spring Break Style

The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on Tuesday April 3rd to hear from the public on the FY19 Budget and the advertised tax rate of $.99.   Unfortunately the Supervisors scheduled the public hearing during Stafford County Public Schools Spring Break.   Many families take advantage of the week off of school to get away and vacation with their family.   Holding a public hearing on such and important topic during a period of time that many county residents are unable to attend is a trigger of concern of transparency.

Board members addressed the concerns that were raised by speakers about the public hearing being held during SCPS’ break.   Supervisor Wendy Maurer stated the scheduling of the meeting was not by designed and continued to state “we have a very strict calendar in order to get our bills out.”   During their March 6 meeting the Supervisors discussed the timeline for setting the tax rate and the concerns of both the Commissioner of Revenue and County Treasurer for completing their work related to tax bills and collection of taxes.

However, the Board ultimately has flexibility on when they can hold meetings, hearings and adopt the tax rate.   Furthermore the county’s budget schedule is often predicated on the Board of Supervisors receiving the School Board’s funding request.   This year the School Board was preparing for presenting their funding request on March 6, but it was delayed by the Board of Supervisors until March 20th.

In September of 2017 the School Board adopted a budget calendar that set March 6th as the target for the School Board to present their funding request to the Board of Supervisors.   The Board of Supervisors adopts a similar budget calendar, however this year the goals of having the School Board’s funding request presented by early March was not met.  Had the board worked together to ensure the funding request was to the Supervisors by the March 6th date the public hearing would have had greater opportunity to have been held on a date other than during Spring Break.

In a previous post we detailed the ideal schedule for the county’s and School Board’s budgets.   Over the years, there has been a lack of communication between the two boards in the time leading up to the budget to ensure both boards are on the same schedule and all conflicting dates are clearly identified.

To see a larger image click here.

Both boards should take note now that Spring Break next year is April 15-19.  It will be helpful to the community if no meetings of significant importance are scheduled during that week.

To see a larger version of the calendar click here.

At the public hearing the Supervisors did hear from several folks expressing their concerns about school funding and other needs.  From Fredericksburg.com

Stafford County residents urge more funding for schools

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

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.