Early-draft school budget adds $600K

The Rappahannock County School Board began its annual months-long budget process Tuesday (Feb. 12) with an informational presentation by interim superintendent Kathleen Grove. The presentation – based on a $12.7 million budget, about $600,000 more than last year’s final school budget – outlined the goals Grove and the board intend to focus on this fiscal year.

She and other board members stressed several times that it was just “an outline” and not a finished project. The process of formalizing a 2013-2014 budget begins with the board’s public work session next Tuesday.

The board also approved a new backpack program designed, in partnership with the Rappahannock Food Pantry, to ensure that no elementary school children go hungry over the weekend, and adopted a new grading scale.

“First and foremost we are here to serve our children,” said Grove, who took over a week ago for the recently resigned superintendent Aldridge Boone. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.”

Grove said her budget was divided into four categories, based on the school’s strategic plan: promoting academic rigor and career preparation, ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment, providing sustainable facilities and broadening community involvement.

The single biggest line item of the proposed budget was a three-percent increase in salaries for all Rappahannock County Public School employees – bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teachers, principals and any other employees.

That raise totalled $190,608, but only covered salaries and did not include any other costs (which totalled an additional $40,170). Grove also set aside $103,841 to cover the (probable but not-yet-confirmed) typical 15 percent health insurance increase and proposed offering health insurance to the school board members (maximum $61,872), who don’t currently enjoy any sort of benefit for their service.

Under academic rigor, Grove said she would like to increase the percentage of students passing the third grade reading assessments to 95 percent. To that end, she proposed allocating $61,087 to hire a full-time reading specialist, which would include salary and benefits.

“This is a critical grade,” Grove said. “This is usually the age where children stop learning to read and start reading to learn.”

Other areas Grove’s presentation focused on were adopting new state reading textbooks ($35,158), hiring a full-time Farm-To-Table teacher ($18,891, also including salary and benefits) and offering tutoring before and after the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests ($6,000).

The Farm-to-Table teaching position is now half-funded by the Headwaters Foundation. Headwaters director Jane Bowling-Wilson said the school’s assumption of the teacher’s salary would help extend the life of the program – but Headwaters would continue its 50-percent funding if it decided not to.

To help ensure a safe and healthy learning environment, Grove proposed hiring a full-time athletic trainer for $64,531. Grove said she was considering the possibility that the trainer could double as a sports medicine teacher, or maybe just receive a stipend to accompany the team’s to their games. Rappahannock is the only school in the Bull Run District without an athletic trainer.

Grove also built in $74,500 to accommodate increased fuel costs, vehicle repair and the potential leasing (and eventual purchase) of two seven passenger vans. Rappahannock recently became part of a different athletic conference, which will necessitate some increased travel to and from sporting events in the upcoming school year.

She also proposed adding varsity golf ($3,721) and Junior Panther baseball ($1,985) to the schools’ athletic offerings. “Golf is a lifelong sport,” Grove noted, adding that the nearby Culpeper County has offered to let RCHS use its golf course for free.

Grove proposed spending $15,950 improve the efficiency of the school building and its grounds. That cost includes painting several areas of the school ($6,000), refinishing radiator covers ($4,200), refurbishing the RCES practice fields ($3,000) and maintaining the RCHS football field ($2,750).

“It’s important for children to feel like they’re in a welcoming environment when they come to school,” Grove said, adding that she believes it also helps stimulate learning.

All told, Grove’s informational budget included $546,706 for salaries, new positions and benefits and $145,248 for other needs, resulting in a potential (“And I do emphasize potential,” Grove said with a smile) budget of $12,721,446 – an increase of $624,823 from last year’s finalized school budget of $12.09 million.

The school’s formal budget proposal will be decided during a “budget work session” at 6 p.m. next Tuesday (Feb. 19). Public hearings on the matter will follow.

The county’s current property tax rate – source of most of the county’s revenue – stands at 60 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to County Administrator John McCarthy. McCarthy said that a $600,000 increase would necessitate a four-cent increase in the tax rate. (Last year’s school-budget increases, along with other benefits- and social-service-related increases, raised the county tax rate by three cents, following four years without a property-tax rate increase.)

“I’d like to thank Mrs. Grove for her work on the budget and hitting it hard in such a short time,” chairman John Lesinski said, noting that “a lot of this is Dr. Boone’s effort as well.”

Boone was mentioned again during the public comment period when Michele Burke, of the Stonewall-Hawthorne district, expressed her disappointment at his resignation.

“I’m sorry and sad that you let him go,” Burke said. “I hope you find someone who keeps up the many programs he started while here . . . they really helped.”

RCES principal Cathy Jones gave a short presentation on the elementary school’s new backpack program, a new partnership with the Rappahannock Food Pantry designed to provide students with meals over the weekends.

The program, which she said is ready to start tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 15), is funded entirely by the Food Pantry, which buys, bags and delivers the food. Teachers take the bags they need and slip them into the students’ backpacks at an “inconspicuous” time (most likely during recess). About 40 children in kindergarten through second grade are enrolled in the program, which has enough food for 14 weeks.

“Kids have no say in whether or not they’re hungry,” said Jones, who stressed that the program was concerned with protecting the students’ confidentiality and ensuring they would not be teased or stigmatized for taking home extra food.

Similar programs have unique backpacks for the children (hence the name “backpack program”) and some even offer rewards for students who return the bags, turning the program into more of a game. Jones said that while that had been considered, there aren’t enough students enrolled to make it feel like a “club,” and the unique backpacks were simply too expensive for now.

“I think it’s a really good program,” said board vice chair Aline Johnson of the Piedmont district. “I really do.”

“It seems like a no-brainer,” said Jackson district’s Amy Hitt. “I would hate to see any children go hungry.” The board thanked Jones for her presentation and for helping to get the program implemented, before unanimously approving it, 5-0.

The board heard a report from instructional coordinator Shannon Grimsley, on behalf of the school division’s recently convened curriculum-review team, who recommended RCPS adopt a new 10-point grading scale instead of continuing with its current seven-point scale.

Based on the grading scale employed in Fairfax County (and other school divisions), the new scale, which would take effect at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, would include plusses and minuses with the letter grades. The “A” grade range would now cover 90-100, a “B” would run from 80-89 and an “F” would now be anything below a 60 (currently it’s a 69).

Grimsley said she didn’t believe that the grade distribution among the student population would change significantly, and added that the new scale is not “lowering our standards.” The board voted unanimously to accept the change.