Budget work session comments

The following comments were recorded by Rappahannock News staff reporter Alex Sharp VIII during Tuesday night’s (March 20) public work session of the school board and board of supervisors at Rappahannock County High School auditorium. A summary of the proposed 2012-2013 school budget can be found in this story from the March 22 print edition.

Dr. Aldridge Boone, superintendent

I think we’re all at a general agreement and understanding that public schools exist to make life better for children, to provide children with an education – and that’s to improve our society by preparing our young people in such a way that they can become productive members of society, able to gain and maintain employment. And we do a pretty good job of that.

Sometimes in the midst of heated discussions about the numbers and programs, benefits and other things, I just think it’s good for all of us to remember that the focus of this budget is our students, and that we as a community should be supportive of those students. I decided long ago that if you’re going to work in the services of children, you can’t be shortsighted or live in the moment. Education, by definition, assumes a planned, structured process over time – and at all times it is a work in progress. Change is inherent in any school improvement process, and all schools exist in a state of continuous improvement. Improvement costs money. And a huge part of this continued improvement is having a highly qualified, motivated, workforce – especially teachers.

Now I understand that boards are elected leaders, and it’s important for you to answer to many people. I also understand that working together we have a responsibility to influence the future by making a positive difference in the lives of the children. Consequently, I ask you to take a long-term view of where we want this school system to go, and where we want our children to be, not just now but in the future. I’ve had many conversations with the board of supervisors, members of the group collectively, and I know for a fact that they all want to do what’s best for children – and tonight, I hope to be able to present you with some information to help us reach our common goal . . .

The next 30 or so minutes involved a presentation of costs, accomplishments, and Boone’s own figures comparing Rappahannock schools to neighboring counties.

. . . I’ve had a lot of references to children and private enterprise and business, and I get that. I actually have a background in business, and I probably get it more than most. But there’s one main difference between private enterprise and public school divisions, and that’s that children are not widgets. We take all who come through. There can’t be defective children. There can’t be children that didn’t meet certain standards. None of that is relevant to a public school system. And as a result, you have to look at it through a different lens. I had the slide up earlier that said, “Teaching is a labor of love,” and I really believe that. We take all children in, we love them all, and we try to have them all meet certain standards before they leave us. We can’t toss them out into a “defective” or “discard” bin – and believe it or not, we can’t start over. When we make a mistake, the effects are long-lasting, often for years. Research will tell you that a negative experience at a lower grade will continue to have negative influences for that child for up to seven years, which is a total of middle school and high school.

So short-sightedness we can’t have. A budget of need is what I tried to present. A budget of need is the linchpin of this process because it represents how much we value the future of our children. Our elementary school for instance is in school improvement . . .

Addressing the facts and figures presented in a school board budget public hearing a week earlier, and in recent letters to the editor in the Rappahannock News:

So suppose, for instance, we paid teachers for the time that they actually put into the job. The lowball figure on this is two hours a day. If I take my average teacher salary, and I consider that that teacher worked two hours a day for 180 student days, and we pay them time and a half for overtime, and multiply that by the 82 teachers that I have – that’s about $1.2 million. And that’s lowballing it. So if I want to play with numbers, I could subtract 1.2 mil from 1.6 mil, and say the total cost of life insurance is $400,000. Data is data, and number is number.

I also say, if I was a teacher, I would say to the school division, “Why don’t you pay me as a babysitter? And not only that, but I’m only gonna charge you $5 an hour, which is below minimum wage.” Five dollars an hour for seven and a half hours a day, times 20 children, do the math – $195,000 a year. There’re a lot of ways that you can play the numbers to talk about what value that you put on the teachers in the classroom . . .

Boone then posted several slides of the specific proposed budget increases.

. . . I’d just like to reiterate again, the children are not widgets. I think that we are a community of learners, a community of learning. The total local transfer increase in this proposed budget is $559,854. That is subject to change, based on what happens in the state legislature. I think that Rappahannock County Schools is, and will continue to be, a good investment for our community. I would like you to take in consideration, the motto of this great state: “Children are our common wealth.”

As far as tonight is concerned, you have a copy of the agenda, I also gave you some reminders as far as what’s going to happen in the future, as the budget process is concerned. The next school board work session is March 23, then on March 30 we will submit the school board’s approved budget to the board of supervisors, and the board of supervisors will have a public comment session on the school portion of the budget April 30 in this auditorium.

Amy Burnett, Hampton district

I’m just gonna rip the band-aid off and go first . . . My children have been in our county’s schools since 1997. My son is in his second year of engineering at Virginia Tech, and my daughter is a sophomore at the high school with aspirations of one day attending Stanford or Princeton.

One of my quirks is that I like to make analogies. I think they’re particularly helpful for children, and I think that they can help adults learn too. I can probably trace this back to my favorite teacher of all time, who was my fifth grade teacher. Of all the teachers I had through elementary and highschool, of all the professors I had in college, Mr. Peters remains my favorite. When I was young, my mom made liver for dinner at least once a month. Of course my brother and my sisters and I all hated it. My mom would say “eat it. it’s good for growing children.” So you might see where I’m going with this. I think this budget is good for growing children too.

As the adults in this community, we lead by example, and I believe it’s our responsibility to grow our children as best we can, and to give them the best that we can afford, so that one day they’ll become responsible and community-minded adults like we are, or we should be. I understand not wanting to raise taxes; my husband and I are paying a college tuition, and his business – which relies heavily on the housing market – has been slow for quite a while. But beef liver is two dollars and forty-nine cents a pound, four pounds for not quite 10 dollars. I think the kids in this county are worth way more than four pounds of chopped liver – or a couple of burgers and fries if you’re so inclined – and I hope that our county’s leaders do too.

Sharon Kilpatrick, Stonewall-Hawthorne district

In general I support this budget . . . I think we need to draw a line and say that if that [health insurance] premium goes up, the employee will have to absorb the cost. I said last week that because the school employees were getting this, the rest of the county’s employees want it too.

Hurley Smith, Hampton district

I have just some general comments that relate to the budget and the budget process. I found it absolutely overwhelming to walk in here and have this whole mess of numbers dumped on us, with very few minutes to even go over it, and then Dr. Boone going for an hour and a half in excruciating detail. We don’t know where we are. And, I’m concerned that there’s not another opportunity for public comment after people have an appropriate opportunity to go over all these numbers and to discuss them and evaluate them. I think we’re given very short shrift here to put up or shut up, on very short notice.

I’m also concerned about the process, in that many of us showed up at the school board meeting recently. Supposedly we were to comment on a proposed budget. After this went on, and there were many many comments, Dr. Boone informed us that there is no budget, and therefore there’s no need to comment. And so we were treated in I think a very insulting way, rather than say, “Okay, you’ve commented on a proposed budget, we’ll take those comments into consideration.” And then to say, “Gee, I might not even do this next year, to give time to comment on a proposed budget.”

I think people ought to have an opportunity to have a proposed budget, to have an opportunity to comment on it fairly – which we tried to do. We pointed out several things that we thought might be a bit extravagant. But then this was totally dismissed because there was not a budget. I think there should be an opportunity after a meeting like this to be able to make public comments. I think it would be very helpful for those of us who have an interest in this to have an opportunity to really review it.

And this brings up another point that I have: Citizens are not widgets; we have differing views, differing opinions, come from different backgrounds, and we’re entitled to have our opinions expressed, and to have them respected. And to have in a written document, presented here tonight, where we’re referred to as a “vocal minority,” because we somehow have some questions about some aspect of the budget that aren’t in total agreement with what the administration wants, we’re called a vocal minority. It’s an insulting term. It’s a “we versus us” sort of situation. I think that’s unfortunate, and I think we ought to get away from that. It is not a we versus us. We – who are called the vocal minority – appreciate teachers; we think teachers ought to be appropriately paid. We’re all for children. It’s just that we have – I feel – a responsibility to make sure that we have the very best possible schools at the most appropriate price, and not to have something extravagant.

I see the rollerblades are still in there. I don’t know whether that’s a thumb in the eye for those of us who’ve raised that point several times. And then I have another comment. One of our citizens took a great deal of trouble to find out the broad basis of our performance, and this was in a letter published by the Rappahannock News and it set forth in great detail, legitimate numbers – and the response we got at the school board was, one member said, “I’m disgusted,” that somebody would have the nerve to investigate how this school was doing versus the other schools in the state. I think that attitude is also part of this vocal minority insult, and an insult to us, who are legitimately concerned about how this school is doing.

We don’t hate teachers, we don’t hate children. We are concerned with the fiscal aspects of the plan. We want the best for the teachers and students.

[County Administrator John McCarthy: “Just to mention, in terms of the public comment process, I know that the school board has another work session on Friday, at which public comment will be taken; and then the board of supervisors is gonna have a full public hearing in this room on April 30, and they’ll have public comment at their regular meetings on the first Monday of every month. So there will be at least three more opportunities to comment on this budget.”]

Jimmy Swindler, Stonewall-Hawthorne district

My wife and I are residents and landowners in the Stonewall-Hawthorne district; we also own some property in the Piedmont district. I say that to let everybody know that we do pay taxes, significant taxes – at least significant to us. I graduated from this school in 1978. I’ve been a teacher here since 2001. I’m currently the athletic director – and in that vein, I’d like everybody to know that our baseball team is currently tied 9-9 in the sixth inning.

Back to the taxes, we don’t care to pay taxes any more than the next person, but what I like even less is seeing my school – our school – struggle to attract and retain quality teachers because our pay scale does not compare favorably to our neighbors. We’re not asking – and I say “we” in speaking for most teachers – to jump to the top of the heap; we’re only asking not to fall farthur behind. In particular, if the insurance and benefits structure needs to be changed, so be it. But remember that if you take that away – or if you change that radically – you’ve got to do something about all those pay raises that the insurance benefits had been in lieu of for the past several years. Because that’s why those benefits were done the way they were done; they were done in lieu of pay raises – and even at that, we’re still way behind. My mother had a quote that she stole from me: “Either all figures lie or all liars figure.” All salaries are public record. We don’t compare very favorably to our neighbors. Are there places that pay less? Sure there are – way down in southwest Virginia, where the cost of living is significantly less than it is around here.

We’re blessed to have a group of dedicated, caring and more-than-competent professional teachers. This group deserves top dollar; they know they’re not gonna get it here, but they’re willing to stay here if we can at least be competitive. I hope that this budget – which I feel would keep us competitive – will be passed. There will always be those who are going to say we can’t afford it. My take on it is we can’t afford not to do this. And I hope you’ll agree with me.

Bill Frietag, Hampton district

It’s really easy to be a hero when everything is running well and everybody has the resources they want. But when times get tough, like they are today, it really takes people, leadership and engenuity to solve those problems in new and different ways – but not necessarily to always grab for a tax raise as the first solution.

In that vein, I constantly hear that refrain that says “our teachers are leaving, our teachers are leaving – and they’ll move on to other jurisdictions if we don’t give them raises,” and so forth. Now yes, we need competent teachers and dedicated teachers, and they need to be fairly paid, absolutely – and whatever it takes to do that, we must do. However, I guess my question is: Are our teachers really leaving in droves? Perhaps some attrition analysis would tell us a little bit about that story. It really should help us understand if we have such a retention problem as it is portayed to be, or is it just a convenient mantra that gets repeated over and over and over?

It seems to me that we have a very significant core of very senior and experienced teachers. My question really is, why have they stayed? Is it only the younger teachers that are leaving us in a massive hemorrhage through the school doors? If so, when did that start? And why? What’s the history of this flood? We need to see if this is true.

I know that retention is part of the overall issue, a small part perhaps – but it is the one that seems so frequently stated, that we ought to understand it better. Understanding it should give us some kind of insight into fixing the problem, if it exists – rather than just raising taxes.

Ron Makela, Jackson district

I was gonna talk about one thing, but I changed my mind and I’m gonna talk about some personal things. I’ve been married to a teacher for 35 years. I’ve been a public employee – out of my working career – probably half of it.

One thing – and I was one of the people who brought up the benefits issue – in my working career, I guess I’m really naive or not very bright, but I never thought that my insurance benefits should be the result of my wife’s job. I mean my insurance benefits have always been the result of my job; we had a child and we paid the insurance benefits for him. So, I never expected the school system to give me insurance – and that sort of drove me to that point.

On the subject that was just talked about: My wife has been a teacher most of her life. She taught here in Rappahannock, and I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that won’t say that she’s a great teacher – but she decided to leave, and it had nothing to do with money, had nothing to do with benefits. And we know other teachers in Rappahannock that taught here, very good teachers, that left – didn’t have anything to do with money, didn’t have anything to do with benefits.

Yes, we need to pay our teachers everything we can give them. I would be in favor of redoing the benefits package, and increasing the pay increase for teachers. I think we also need to look at, across the board, our salaries and see how they compare. We tend to go, “We need to increase the salaries to keep our teachers,” but we need to look at the rest of the staff – and not that they’re not deserving, but we need to ensure that we’re paying our other staff positions the same, or close to equal to what the neighboring communities are doing. So you can’t just look at one factor. You can’t just look at teachers and say, “Because our teachers are low, it’s got to be across the board.” We may have to look at our salary scales and do some adjusting in different areas.

In fact – now this is a small area but it’s in something I talked to Mr. Lesinski about – our mechanics. We have two mechanics. They’re in charge of keeping the buses, which carry the kids in, in a safe condition. You look at the salary we’re paying those folks, compared to what other mechanics in this day and age are getting paid, and to increase their salary to a respectable level you wouldn’t be able to find it in the school budget – but it would mean a hell of a lot to them.

So I think we really need to take the time – and obviously we can’t do it on this budget – but we need to take maybe the next year to look across the board, at all our salary scales, look at our benefits package. There was a reference to Fauquier’s package, which I believe is multi-tiered, in that they have different levels; in Rappahannock we have one level of insurance . . . In other counties they have different levels. That may be something you’d want to look at.

And the other things is – and there was a letter written this week, and I don’t think it was intentional on the part of the person that wrote the letter – but it had to do with the health benefits for other county employees. And it sort of implied that because teachers had to get a degree, and they were encouraged to get higher degrees in order to do well in their profession, that they deserved a better benefit package than, say, a deputy sheriff. And this is something that, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if you’re a teacher, or whatever you’re doing for the county, you deserve the same health insurance benefits. It’s not related by the education. It’s not related to your salary. Everybody deserves the same benefits, and I think we should work to this end. Thank you.

Henry Gorfein, Hampton district

I agree with Mr. Makela that everybody should receive the same benefits, but I don’t see how you help the people not getting the benefits by taking benefits away from those who already have them.

I also heard today, over and over again, “you can’t simply keep raising taxes.” Well I must live in another county, because we haven’t raised the taxes in this county in four years, almost five. (Jimmy Swindler, “Amen brother.”) Also, what we pay has gone down; in the last three years our assessment went down two cents out of a hundred. So actually we’re paying less than we were paying five years ago. So I think this stuff that we hear about “we can’t keep raising taxes” – well we haven’t, it’s that simple.

The other thing I was thinking about was: benefit package; perhaps what you can do is keep the packages for those people already employed – seems to me you have some sort of obligation, because you originially hired them under them those benefits – and then maybe look into the benefit packages of new employees. But under the present idea, what I hear is “your teacher’s making $40,000, with 15 years in on the system,” you wind up getting a 3 percent raise, which is $1,200 – and the suggestion is then “well let’s take $3,000 back in benefits, which you have to pay for.” Now I made up the term $3,000 – I don’t know – no one puts forth any real, hard figures. Even if it’s $2,000, a teacher winds up $800 behind the eight ball. They’re actually losing money, after five years – and this goes for the whole staff, after five years of not having any raises.

So I really think that this is not a terrible hardship on this county. Our tax rate – and I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me – is not that great. The reason we seem to pay higher taxes is because our property is worth more – that’s just the way it is. It’s not that the rate is high, it’s that property is actually worth more. So I’d really like you to consider giving the teachers their raise, and supporting Dr. Boone.

And the last thing I’m going to say is, when I hear about things like skateboards, I think that it’s imperative that the school system become the center of this community – absolutely imperative. And I’d rather see us spend $5,000 on inline skates than seeing the kids hang around in front of the Quicke Mart when I go over there to fill up the car. I think it’s really important that we create – every other county has things for their kids to do – we really don’t have much of a park system, the school is the only place where they can actually play ball, except for maybe Stuart Field. You’ve got to think of the school not only as a place to educate the kids, but actually the community center for the entire county.

Steve Carroll, Stonewall-Hawthorne district

Rather than looking at the budget on a micro level, I’d like to look at it on a macro level. The last four years, the school division has kept their request to the county, and the funding level, flat. And correct me if I’m wrong, but the increase that this budget asks for from the county is a total increase of $559,000, of which $393,000 is this VRS that we’ve been discussing. So that is state-mandated; there’s no choice about that. The increase, then – over the previous four, level years – is a total of $167,000, for all other programs, all other increases and decreases in the budget.

I have been active in Headwaters for 10 years – and I’m here speaking for myself and not Headwaters – and this last year I’ve been privileged to volunteer in an after-school program, and I had a wonderful time working with the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. And it’s given me an opportunity to be in the schools, and to meet some of the teachers that I had not met or had not worked with before – and we have that core of dedicated, senior teachers. Dave Naser’s one, Jimmy Swindler’s another (pointing out both in the audience); there’s a whole core of those teachers. They have gone without raises. This budget asks for a modest raise, and that raise is included within that $167,000 difference.

Now this county, it’s not an accident that this county has a .8 LCI. We are a prosperous county. The tax system is distorted because of the agricultural and forestal uses, which shifts the burden of the taxes. But, we cannot preserve the beauty of this county on the backs of our children. We have to make the choice that it’s worth it to fund the education of our children. And we also, at the same time, want to inhibit development, allow agriculture; we have to assume the obligation to tax ourselves. And I am willing to have my taxes increased by the very marginal amount that would be required to meet this $167,000 increase.

And I support Dr. Boone. I know Dr. Boone – and I’ve known some of the prior superintendents – and I am gratified that we have a man of his quality leading our school system. And we need to support Dr. Boone and keep him, because he will keep improving the schools.

Shannon Grimsley, RCPS instruction coordinator

I’m from Massachusetts. This is my fifth year here. And I just wanted to respond to, “What brings us [teachers] here?” And what really attracts some of us from outside . . . I’m in Luray, I don’t live in Rappahannock. I don’t know how to quantify how many of us are leaving, but I can tell you – because we put a number to everything in Team Data – that one third of our teachers live outside the county and work here. One third. Here’s another number: 25 percent of men – this is a national number – are stay-at-home dads now; 80 percent of your teachers are women. And if you want to put a face to that, my husband stays at home so I can drive 40 minutes over a mountain to come to Rappahannock every day. Why do I do that? Because I’ve never been in a place where I’m more inspired than this place. I get inspired at every single level. Even here tonight I’m surprised by these individuals, that everybody has a clear goal. We all love our kids. And we all do want to help them succeed, and we all may have differences of opinion on how to get there.

What’s scaring us away isn’t necessarily money. But in times like this – it’s hard when a gallon of gas goes up past four dollars – how willing are some of these people who are working so hard already traveling 40 minutes over the mountain going to last without some help? It’s a difficult thing. And I just want people to consider that . . . One third of us do live outside this county, but want to come here, and do want to move here. I’ve been trying to sell my house for five years and move over here [laughs], but it’s been a difficult journey. But we’ll do it. We love this place. It’s amazing. And this is an amazing school.

Jeff Knight, Hampton district

First of all I want to say that I have a lovely wife of 40 years who’s a retired teacher, so I’m not at war with teachers. And as a father of five and grandfather of six, I don’t believe children are widgets either. But I do have some thoughts for you.

“More spending always improved education”: There are some people that actually believe this. I’m concerned that some of the folks in our county government believe this, people upon whom we rely to guide the finances of our small school system. My concern began in the school board work session I attended last month. At that session we learned from Dr. Boone that our schools already faced a mandatory spending increase for VRS funding and health insurance benefits that would cost an extra half a million dollars. In spite of that bad news, and with the backdrop of declining enrollment, new spending ideas were floated – ranging from a personal trainer to even new health insurance benefit programs for the school board members themselves. I don’t know who specifically authored these proposed new spending priorities, but I know this: The ideas suggest a very cavalier attitude regarding the prudent use of taxpayer money. Fortunately those two ideas didn’t get too far, but the mere fact that this kind of new spending was even proposed, begs the question: What other misguided spending might be buried somewhere in the budget? Are, for instance, school staffing numbers in line with our enrollment? I think this is the biggest issue on the table.

Almost 70 percent, by Dr. Boone’s numbers, of the school budget is consumed by school salaries and benefits alone – therefore representing a huge portion of our overall county budget. It would seem that a detailed review of the schools staffing levels would be a most basic tool to evaluate this significant portion of our school and county budget.

The school board and superintendent are both powerful advocates for our schools. I’ve seen that in the meetings I’ve been to; I think in large measure they do that as their job. But they appear to have no appetite for school spending cuts at any level. I therefore respectfully ask the board of supervisors to serve as a counterweight to this powerful advocacy. Please, roll up your sleeves and drill down deeply into the school budget numbers. The heavy lifting for any meaningful fiscal reform is squarely on your shoulders. Yes, we must fund the legitimate needs of our schools – I think everybody agrees with that – but in the weeks ahead, I urge you to challenge the status quo, and review the justification for spending at every level in the proposed school budget. I believe most citizens in our county expect and embrace this sort of accountability. Please don’t let ‘em down.

Katherine Treanor, Jackson district

I did a little math a minute ago, and realized that my kids started coming to Rappahannock County schools in 1989 – that makes me really, really old [laughs], and I have attended many, many of these wonderful meetings. Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you this evening.

We’ve heard a good deal about finding creative ways to solve economic problems, and to find creative ways to fund the school budget – and can’t you just squeeze, can’t we as a community, just squeeze a bit more effort, enthusiasm, motivation and excitement for learning out of the school budget?

I have the privilege of working with the high school band boosters – have for way more years than I have sanity – but it seems that that organization, every year, is asked to pick up more and more of what we would consider instructional funds – because of the lack of increase in the school budget. For the last four years, we’ve been sending, assisting to send students to the Virginia Honor Band, which is a wonderful honor; we’ve assisted purchasing additional equipment for the high school band. And I hear that from a number of other nonprofit organizations that also support the schools. And while we stand ready to do that, we can only do it so long, and to such a degree.

I think for the last four years, a level-funded budget has been perhaps possible because – over the last many years, since 1989 – these two boards have worked together to bring Rappahannock County teacher salaries nowhere near the top of local communities, but at least more in keeping with local communities.

We’ve seen the most remarkable improvement in the school system since my kids started in ’89. I don’t want to see parents – or have to speak to parents – who say, “Well, why are my class sizes so high?” because a choice was made to reduce a teacher in a grade. In any small school system, scheduling is horrendous. There will always be seven, eight children who want to take a class in psychology, where there aren’t enough kids in that classroom – there aren’t 20 kids in that classroom, no – but in order to complete academic requirements, and graduation requirements, kids need classes. And in a small school system, the reality is that there are sometimes not 20 or 30 kids in a class.

I think I remember not too many years ago, that Rappahannock went through a fairly rigorous evaluation with staffing, and came out the other end saying we need more staff, not less. That was a few years ago. But I think it’s important that we, as citizens in our community, take our responsibility to fund quality public schools seriously. And in order to do that, we need to raise teacher salaries . . . That’s our job. We’re citizens in this community. I know you all take that responsibility very seriously. And I appreciate your service. I hope you’ll fund this school budget, as it’s been discussed this evening.

Jeff Sabol, Piedmont district

Good evening, my name is Jeff Sabol, although most of you probably know me as Mr. Peggy Stevenson [loud laughs from Jimmy Swindler and others], which of course is a reference to my lovely wife, who graduated from these hallowed halls back in the day, as they say.

I may not look the part, but I’m a Virginia farm boy. I grew up on a working cattle operation, and I’m a product of public education at the elementary, high school and college level. Being of modest means I worked to pay my own way through college and then graduate school – without financial assistance from my parents. As a result, I am a believer in public education and a pragmatist. Now I’m also a full-time resident of Rappahannock County; I own my home and pay real estate taxes here. I am a parent of two boys in the elementary school – fifth grade and third grade – and a little girl who will start in about 18 months. I have a vested interest, I’m a voter, and I’m a constituent represented by both boards here; I live in Piedmont district. Thank you to the distinguished members of both boards, Dr. Boone and everyone present, for the opportunity to offer – respectfully, of course – observations tonight.

When my wife and I first experienced the school system six years ago, when our fifth-grader started kindergarten, my wife and I were struck by several things: lead in the drinking water – drinking fountains you couldn’t drink from because there’s lead contamination – asbestos – both at the high school as well as the elementary school – rickety playground equipment that seemed dangerous to us, moldy HVAC systems that worked only intermittently. And they were disturbing to us because none of the children have a say on whether they attend here; the law rquires them to do so. And we – we as a community – did not fund the repairs that would safeguard their health in later life. Instead, we allowed the budget debate to take different courses. Again these are observations.

Progressing now through several grades, we made additional observations disturbing to us as parents. One was the lack of a formulized, integrated curriculum, wherein teachers at the higher grading levels know exactly what teachers in the next grade levels are teaching to the children. There was a lack of a formal, organized math curriculum that rivaled the reading program that we have in place thankfully here. Anecdotally, we observed a high turnover rate amongst the teachers, the ones that we knew.

Reading the newspaper, it wasn’t just the young ones starting out their careers, it was also ones that made an impact here and then leveraged that impact to get better pay, better benefits in other systems. Again, we as a community for better or for worse, allowed this to happen.

A year and a half ago, we witnessed nothing short of a sea-change. There was a new administration. New ideas, unfettered by old battle scars. We could now think about what was important, not just getting half a loaf to get by. We noticed the “can do” attitude, a curriculum improvement program, formal anti-bullying programs, upgrades to bring basic, basic levels of IT support into the school system. We saw asbestos remediation last year – hopefully we can get to the lead in the drinking water. We saw real community outreach – open forums, like this one, to discuss ideas; and ones that we’ve had here, in this auditorium, constructive engagement. Again, constructive, polite, engagement – instead of any kind of demagoguery.

Look what happened when the elementary school needed help to get that rickety playground equipment taken care of. The whole community came forward, and somehow we got it done – and at a lot less cost than we thought would be possible.

My point is really this: We’re in the midst of a much-needed transformation here in Rappahannock County. We are fixing things that we’ve let go for a long time. And there are folks amongst us that would have us believe that the budget we’ve seen tonight is full of luxury items, and I submit to you – respectfully of course – that we’re not discussing luxuries; we’re discussing foundational necessity. We’ve talked about safety maintenance and upgrades to the physical plant as well as the transportation fleet. We’re talking about salary adjustments for people who haven’t had a raise in over five years. We’re talking about employer provisioning of health care coverage – which is a basic tenant of the American health care system. We’re talking about curriculum integration, including the math and science improvements needed for our kids to compete, not just in the global economy but our state economy, in our job market today.

And the choice really is ours. We can succumb to debates of the past, allowing ourselves once again to believe that we’ve done “good enough, for Rappahannock.” We can repeat the cycles over and over again, or we can continue the basic foundational fixes that have been proposed and discussed here. Then and only then, I submit, can we continue the debate on the next level of educational improvement. We can and should raise the bar for all of our children, no question. It is within our grasp to do it. Let’s go ahead and pass this budget, be done with distractions and sidebars, and let’s get on with the hard work of creating the future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email