“Don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” as a few entrepreneurs and politicians are fond of saying. It seems that here in Rappahannock County, we may have done just that for a few years running with respect to an ever-shrinking annual school budget. In a toxic economy, it takes big ideas to overcome small budgets.
As a small, rural county, we have a special obligation to our children to prepare them to compete for jobs and higher education outside Rappahannock. Unless a high-school graduate is anxious and able to work on a family farm, there is not much work here, and there are no institutions of higher learning.
To date, the Rappahannock public schools have done well at fulfilling this obligation. In January, RCHS ranked first of the seven area high schools listed in the annual Washington Post and Newsweek Challenge Index. The high school was ranked 44th of 72 high schools in Northern Virginia, and 89th of 171 in the D.C. metropolitan area.
The Virginia Department of Education reported that both schools in the county made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on Standards of Learning (SOL) testing in 2008 and 2009. And last year, more graduates attended competitive four-year colleges than ever before.
Outside the classroom, RCPS students are successful as well. The Quiz Bowl team won the state championship in 2009, the marching band earned a superior rating at the Virginia Band Festival for the first time, Farm-to-Table has been held up as a model by neighboring counties wanting to replicate the program, and the SkillsUSA team were district and state champions in a “Teamworks” contest. These are huge accomplishments.
But it’s hard to keep doing more – or even as much – with less. As it is, the schools are hanging onto the status quo by their fingernails. This year’s working school budget asks for no more money than last year, meaning that teachers will, for the second year in a row, be denied even a cost-of-living increase, certain “nonessential” programs are threatened and class sizes may go up if retiring teachers are not replaced. If the state or the county cut more, some teachers may lose their jobs. Morale, one barometer of strength, will sink, and take that invisible muscle of motivation with it.
Our school budget has never been fat. In fact, the Efficiency Review Study completed in 2007 suggested that not only were we lean and mean, but that to be truly efficient, we needed to spend more money, lots more. It concluded that we should be spending roughly $250,000 more a year than we do to properly educate the county’s youngest citizens.
If you don’t have children in the school system, the school budget still affects you. The school is, by far, the largest employer in the county. As county restaurants close one by one and real estate sales drop, the fiscal and academic health of the school system becomes increasingly important to every resident whether you live here full-time or only on the weekends.
The aesthetic value of Rappahannock, its conservation ethic preserved through rare zoning laws, is what most people identify as Rappahannock’s strength. It is. But the schools pay a price. A rather complicated formula — the Local Composite Index (LCI) — determines the local ability to pay for public education. Largely determined by property values, the LCI formula is based on the fair market value of real estate.
In farming counties, such as ours, where Land Use makes up much of the tax base, that formula unintentionally pits schools against farmers, because Land Use values are significantly less than fair market values.
Our LCI is .8, the largest allowed in the state, meaning the county is responsible for 80 cents on every dollar in the school budget, a distinction we share with larger counties such as Fauquier and Loudoun. That number says we’re rich when we’re not. The bigger, richer counties stuck with this calculation are fighting it in Richmond. Perhaps we should urge to our school board and our Board of Supervisors to do the same.
In the meantime, let’s step up together and fight to preserve every dollar in that school budget, and then some. Don’t ignore a good budget crisis altogether. There were no more than 12 people – including parents, teachers and concerned taxpayers – at the last school board meeting where the proposed school board budget was being unveiled. While there’s very little discretionary money to divvy up after the state mandates are funded, there are a lot of young people and their futures dependent on it. Don’t ignore them. They need your support.
Mary Anne Biggs
Former board chairs, Headwaters Foundation