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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.


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.

Rebuild, Renovate, Build New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stafford County FY19 Budget

It’s budget time again in Stafford County.   While the School Board wrapped up their budget that will be presented to the Board of Supervisors on March 20th, the Board of Supervisors received the County Administrator’s proposed budget on Tuesday.

The County Administrator’s proposed budget is the first step for the Board of Supervisors to begin work on the county budget; a process that will finalize with them adopting the Fiscal Year 2019 budget in April.

In the presentation, themed “Addressing Growth -> Positioning for the Future” the County Administrator proposed setting the real estate tax rate $0.965 per $100 of assessed value.   That tax rate is applied to residential homes in the county and the value of the home is assessed by the Commissioner of the Revenue every two years.   For a home valued at $300,000 the annual taxes at a $0.965 tax rate would be $2895.00.   The rate of $0.965 is based on the current tax rate of $0.99 and is determined based on the average change in home reassessments conducted this year.  It is the point at which the average tax bill for homeowners would not change from last year.

The residential tax is the largest contributor to the over revenue of the county, hence it is the driving factor in the budget.   With the rate at $0.965 the county general fund is projected to be $301,104,254 for FY19.

The School Board completed their work on their proposed budget on Monday, March 5 at a Special Called Meeting.   The School Board’s budget was developed with the level of local funding the schools received last year.  It assumed no additional local funding for FY19.  With that the School Board’s budget has a funding gap of over $13 million.   Some of the $13 million will be covered with new money from the state accounting for additional students in the division.  However, there will still be a significant gap that the School Board will be asking the Board of Supervisors to fill.

School Board FY19 Budget Adjustments worksheet

In the County Administrator’s proposed budget to the Board of Supervisors the projected new revenue to schools is $6.36 million  for FY19.   That sounds like a sizable number and a level the school division would welcome.   The School Board would likely be able to make adjustments within their budget to be able to balance their budget with an $6.36 million local funding increase.  However, within the $6.36 million increase is additional funding for the Public Day School and CSA funding that, while carried on the school division budget, the School Board has limited to no control over.   The County Administrator’s proposed budget has an increase in revenue of $3.27 million going to the school division.  That will be a challenge for the School Board to make adjustments to their budget to pay for teacher raises, new buses, new positions to meet the demands of growth and a number of other priorities the board had set out to accomplish in this year’s budget.

The Board of Supervisors will now have work sessions as they work to adopt a final budget.  A tax rate will be advertised at either the $0.965 rate or any other rate the Supervisors decide.  They will hold a public hearing at which time the public can provide their comments on the tax rate and the overall budget.   The budget calendar is proposed to complete the budget process on April 17 with the adoption of the FY19 budget.

You can view the County Administrator’s entire slide show on the budget here.

The entire video of the County Administrator’s presentation is here (it runs about 45 minutes)

After the budget presentation the Board took up an item that was on their consent agenda, but removed by Supervisor Mauer.   The item was the authorization of the tax rate at $0.965.   The Board had several minutes of discussion and decided in a vote 6-1 to defer advertising the tax rate.   Had they advertised the rate they would not have had any opportunity to consider a higher rate.



School Security in Stafford County Public Schools

At their February 27 meeting, the Stafford County School Board discussed and heard comments about security in county schools.  The discussion was prompted by the tragic events in Parkland, Florida.

The meeting started with an overview given by Dr. Bruce Benson about the status of security in the schools.

After Benson’s remarks the School Board heard from many concerned citizens, students and staff regarding school security.   Also in attendance at the meeting were several members of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors who were on hand to demonstrate their support for improving security in the schools.   Griffis-Widewater Supervisor Jack Cavalier took to the podium during Citizen Comment time to speak about his and the Board of Supervisors’ commitment to ensuring the school division has the resources necessary to ensure the schools are secure.

Cavalier encouraged the Board to include a contingency in their upcoming budget for security measures that might not yet be assessed, but may need funding this year.  He stated he would fully support the budget measure.

After Citizen Comment each member of the School Board provided their thoughts on the topic and expressed their desires to ensuring schools are secure.   The meeting ended with a discussion about the FY19 budget and the status of the development.  While the Board had on their agenda an Action Item to adopt the budget that would be presented to the Board of Supervisors for FY19, there was concern there were no budget documents available to the public for their review prior the meeting.  The Board postponed adoption until Monday March 5, at which time they will hold a Special Called meeting for the purpose of adopting the budget.

You can view the entire School Board Meeting