School board hears calls for efficiency at budget session

Efficiency was the theme of the night at the Rappahannock County School Board’s public hearing on its proposed 2013-2014 budget Tuesday (March 5). Several of the roughly 20 in the crowd spoke about the possibility of doing away with the school system’s current block-scheduling model and eliminating any staff redundancies.

The proposed school budget is $12.5 million, $417,251 more than the 2012-2013 budget. The next step in the budget-approval process, which ends with the county supervisors’ approval, is a March 18 joint public hearing with the school board and supervisors.

Walt Longyear of Hampton district was the first Monday night to voice ideas about the school division’s efficiency. He said block scheduling was “a systematic problem” that allows students to sometimes go a full year in between math or foreign language courses, and that interfered with students’ ability to learn such difficult concepts.

“Those subjects need daily reinforcement,” Longyear said, suggesting that maybe the school could adopt a seven-period day or similar model. “It would save the schools money and benefit the students . . . I think you need to seriously look at eliminating [block scheduling].”

Hurley Smith, also of Hampton district, echoed Longyear’s remarks. “Most of your budget seems to go to a head count [staff and benefits],” Smith pointed out, suggesting it was an area that needed to be studied. “Even though there’s a declining school population, there’s an increased head count.”

Washington resident Jeffrey Knight further agreed, noting that roughly 80 percent of the school system’s budget goes toward staff salaries and benefits and that the previous year’s budget is treated as a baseline to add costs to.

“It’s not ordinary that budgets always go up,” Knight said. “There are about 132 school divisions in this state, and more than half of them were able to decrease their budget from 2011-12 . . . You shouldn’t always assume it needs to be increased when the student population is relatively stable.”

Gary Light of Stonewall-Hawthorne district defended the board’s decision to keep its staffing numbers where they are, saying that there are “a lot of reasons” for having as many teachers as the schools do. “They’re not run inefficiently.”

Light then urged the board reevaluate the way it presents the budget, both to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors and the public.

“I urge you to make the case for the budget in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Light said, suggesting the board find a way to gather public support for the budget, which might help it pass with fewer cuts.

The rest of the evening’s comments concerned the ongoing search for a permanent superintendent. The board hopes to have the position filled by July 1; Kathleen Grove was hired two months ago to serve as interim superintendent.

An update on the search was presented by Dan Howerton, representing Synergy, the consulting firm hired by the school board to find a replacement for Aldridge Boone, whose peremptory resignation in February was due, according to those familiar with the negotiations, to the board’s failure at that point to have renewed his two-year contract.

“This is a national search,” Howerton said. “This [Rappahannock County] is a very attractive place to live . . . I encourage everyone to ask ‘Who do you know?’ that might be able to fill this position.”

Howerton added that Synergy has posted a survey online at rappahannockschools.us that he encouraged everyone to fill out. The 21-question survey asks participants to select the qualities they most wished to see in a replacement superintendent.

Janet Davis, of Stonewall-Hawthorne, thanked the board for including the survey on the schools’ website but asked for more clarification on how exactly the results would be used.

“I’m glad to feel like we have a voice,” Davis said, adding that it was the relationships kids form in high school that they’ll remember years afterward. “What I remember most . . . are the teachers and the principal,” Davis said, urging the board to ensure they retained as many teachers as they could.

“In the end, you remember the relationships you make,” Davis said.

Piedmont district resident Doug Schiffman also thanked the board for the survey, but added that he thought each of the board members should take it and compare the results.

“I think the superintendent is, along with the sheriff and County Administrator, one of the three most important positions in the county,” Schiffman said. “We’ve had a number of them over the years . . . you need to agree on what you want in a superintendent . . . and make this a position where people want to stay.”

Once the public comment period had closed, board member Amy Hitt defended the school’s adoption of block scheduling, saying that it added rigor to the school’s curriculum and allowed dual-enrollment at Lord Fairfax Community College (LFCC) and enabled the school to focus on kids who might not want to go to college.

“With a seven-day period, dual enrollment at LFCC isn’t possible,” Hitt said. “I understand the concerns about staffing and it’s something we can look at . . . but I’m not willing to give up rigor in our studies.”

“I think there’s merit to both the arguments [on staffing and block scheduling],” board member Paul Brown said. “I don’t know the answer to either one . . . but it’s not something we can do in the next few weeks . . . I don’t want to make any changes that would disrupt our new superintendent right out of the gate.”

Board chairman John Lesinski thanked the public for its feedback and attendance at the meeting, and assured audience members the school board would listen to their concerns.

“I don’t believe Draconian cuts are in our best interest . . . we’re going to do our best to provide as soft a landing as possible.”

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