Last evening, the School Board signaled their support for sending my funding request to the Board of Supervisors with no change. The School Board will take a formal vote at their February 13 meeting. They also will include in their resolution, a list of potential expenditure cuts that would be considered if the request is not fully funded once we receive final state and local government revenue numbers.
These reductions could include items that are on a list I prepared at the direction of the Board. I noted when presenting these options on January 30 that I was doing so with reluctance. I do not want to see our school division retreat to mediocrity or average as many other school divisions across our state and nation have been forced to do during the recessionary years.
Dedication in the Face of Cuts
With your dedication to our students and some tough budget cuts since 2008, we have avoided drastic increases in class size, or cuts to arts, physical education, libraries and guidance or eliminating programs that benefit a wide range of students, from gifted to special education. We’ve avoided permanent class size increases.
While it’s true our $3.4 million in cuts have occurred in ways that have protected our classrooms, reductions in professional development, academic stipends, learning resources, building services, transportation, and centralized instructional accounts have not been pain-free.
Even when spending increased, it had limited benefit. We added 7.7% to employee compensation during the past few years. This has not increased take-home pay due to the end of the 2% social security holiday, the 5% state-mandated employee contribution to the Virginia Retirement System and associated social security and life insurance cost increases.
The Real Problem
We are faced with a revenue problem created by federal and state mandates over the last five years. The VRS 5% salary increase added over $360 to our per pupil expenses. An additional increase in the VRS employer rate next year will add $172 to those expenses. Almost $600 in per pupil expenses will go, not to supporting students, but to VRS. That’s nearly $7 million of our funding request.
In five years, we have seen an increase of more than 1,000 students from economically disadvantaged families and we now serve almost 3,800 children who are in this membership group. This is more children than total student enrollments in many of our contiguous school divisions. We serve well over 1,000 ESOL students who speak 79 different languages. As the number of students with more intense learning needs have risen, we have worked hard to sustain our capacity to teach every child well.
The Path We Should Take
Albemarle County is the 13th wealthiest county in Virginia according to state government computation formulas determining our ability to pay for public education. We are one of the most highly educated communities in our state and nation. Our business partners, realtors, senior citizens and higher education counterparts recognize the return on investment that results from providing a top quality education, regardless of a child’s zip code, economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, special learning needs, or native language.
We are at a crossroads. One path lowers our vision to being just average. The other is more difficult. It matches our educational programs to our community values. Here is another list, not of potential cuts, but of what I believe to be of vital necessity to our children, our parents, our community, and to you:
- Reasonable class size ratios that allow educators to build relationships with learners, know each student and their strengths, interests, and challenges, and to work with students to add to their capabilities and knowledge;
- Small community schools and schools with moderate enrollments so that we do not have massive-sized education factories as many districts now are forced to have;
- Programs that add learning value for all students and a learning lifeline for some—arts, physical education, libraries, guidance services, career and tech education, AVID, academies, charter schools, K-12 world languages, intervention and special education, pre-school education and others;
- A transportation system that allows bus runs on different school schedules with reasonable travel times to and from schools;
- Facilities and learning environments that are secure, safe, updated and functional; and
- A world-class workforce dedicated to the profession of educating and supporting all children.
The recent Commonwealth Poll on Education shows that 65% of all Virginians believe schools need more funds to sustain quality education. A total of 70% are willing to pay more in taxes to support public schools. In our own community, a 2013 survey of citizens in Albemarle found that 95% of our residents believe that excellence in education is highly important or essential and 95% also believe investment of funds in public schools is highly important or essential.
Meetings that Will Affect the Division
We are one of the strongest school divisions in our nation. We are doing more with less than are elite public and private schools across our state and nation. Whether it’s the $16,000 per pupil expenditure in Charlottesville City, local private high school tuition of $22,000, or the $16,700 spent on each student in Shaker Heights, Ohio, we are accomplishing great results with fewer resources.
A continuation of this success, however, is far from guaranteed. I am eager to work with our School Board, our Board of Supervisors and with each of you to ensure that we do not choose a path that reduces our aspirations for unleashing the potential of every student. Key dates to keep in mind are the public hearing on the county executive’s budget on Monday, February 24, the Board of Supervisors’ budget work session on Monday, March 3 and its tax rate hearing on Tuesday, April 8. Thank you for keeping us on the right path.
Stay connected to our budget process at www.k12albemarle.org/budget.