Bus safety and gratitude for the county’s teachers were the two major themes at the joint public hearing last Wednesday night (April 3) of the Rappahannock County School Board and the Board of Supervisors.
After several work sessions, the school board formally adopted a $12.61 million budget on March 19 – an increase of $445,932, or about 3 percent, over the school division’s current budget. The supervisors will make a final decision next month on the school division’s budget – and the county’s own proposed $22.5 million fiscal-year 2014 budget.
At its March 19 session, the school board elected to allocate $155,022 to replace two of the school’s aging buses; the school system’s administration director Robert Stump said that night that Rappahannock’s fleet is “one of the oldest in the Commonwealth,” with 10 buses more than 15 years old, and 11 of the school’s 27 buses between 14 and 20 years old.
The school division is aiming for a federal grant which that provides a $25,000 discount to the school, driving the cost from $77,511 per bus to $52,511. The school board’s plan is also meant to start a process of staggering the rotation of old buses out and newer ones in, ensuring that future school boards never need to replace all the buses at once.
That gesture was vocally appreciated by the 50 people gathered at last Wednesday’s joint meeting, – including, especially, many of the school division’s bus drivers, who sat near the front holding up handmade signs displaying the age and mileage of the various buses they drive, and petitioning both boards for newer, safer vehicles.
In one of the three-hour meeting’s most memorable demonstrations, bus driver Eddie Gore approached the podium holding a large plastic bag filled with chunks of rust he said he had collected from several of Rappahannock’s buses “just by knocking my fist against [them].”
“There are areas on these buses where I can stick my whole fist through a rusted-out hole on the outside,” Gore said. “We’re not asking for all-new buses – just safe buses . . . we’re hauling the most precious cargo in the world,” Gore concluded, eliciting huge applause from the crowd and the row of his colleagues.
“I’m worried that [replacing] two buses a year won’t provide safe transportation,” said Wakefield district resident Lisa Schlosser, who added that she heard the school board’s initial proposal was to purchase five new buses in each of the next two years.
Schlosser said that even if the initial cost of the buses would be heavy up front – five buses would cost $387,555 (or $262,000 with the federal grant), pushing the school budget increase close to $1 million – it would be more cost-effective in the long term.
“It’s not a want – it’s a need,” Schlosser added, to further applause.
Amissville resident Ron Makela, a former school board member, suggested that switching out which buses run which routes could also help stagger some of natural wear, especially on the buses that travel to and from Chester Gap each day. Makela also pointed out that there are plenty of lightly used buses that the board could potentially purchase and that the replacement buses “don’t have to be new.”
“Let me make something clear,” began school board member Paul Brown, “we are not putting buses on the road that aren’t safe.” Brown added that, aside from the cost associated with buying five new buses, the school board elected to only replace two so that the age of the fleet could be furthered staggered and that, “five years down the road,” the boards wouldn’t be in this same position.
“They’re not bad or dangerous buses – they’re just old,” added Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier.
Appreciation of the work done by all the county’s teachers dominated the rest of the comment period, with Castleton resident Greg Ludlow first to comment on it. Ludlow pointing out that even with the 3-percent raise built into this year’s budget, the actual money amounted to “just over $100 a month – a rather paltry sum.”
Ludlow continued, saying that there was “a popular misconception” about teachers’ workloads and balked at the idea that teachers could ever be considered part-time employees, eliciting murmurs of approval from the crowd, which included several RCPS teachers.
“If you want to attract qualified teachers, you’re going to have to pay,” Ludlow said. “There are 135 other districts in Virginia where they can go . . . the alternative is ominous.”
Nol Putnam of Flint Hill echoed Ludlow’s comments, adding that during his 14 years as a private school teacher, the attitude was “keep the teachers lean and hungry,” akin to eternally dangling a carrot in front of teachers’ faces to incentivize them to work harder.
Putnam cautioned the board not to adopt such a philosophy and offered his support of the budget, as proposed. “Most people have no idea of the emotional, physical and psychological impacts they [teachers] invest to make these kids thrive.”
Amissville’s Hal Hunter also offered support for the presented budget, noting that the county’s public school system has drastically improved since his children were in school during the 1970s. “The teachers deserve it and so do the kids,” Hunter said.
Demaris Miller, of Washington, “applaud[ed] the the quality of teachers” in Rappahannock, but also urged the board to make sure they prioritized their expenses. “The benefits and salary they’re offered is nothing to be ashamed of,” Miller said, adding that it was important to preserve the ability of the less-fortunate to still afford to live in the county.
Jeffrey Knight agreed with Miller’s comments, urging the board to “take a broad approach to the budget,” and cautioning them that, historically, the budget from previous years becomes a baseline for the successive years.
Knight also pointed out that 133 school divisions in Virginia have reduced their operating budgets and that, if the board didn’t prioritize, the budget could grow by as much as $1 million in just a few years.
Barney O’Meara was the first to suggest that perhaps the school budget was too diminished, saying that he would be in favor of a higher budget if it was necessary. “Public education is the most important thing we do in this country,” O’Meara said, citing two founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who believed in its overwhelming importance as well.
“I think this the most critical budget yet,” said Flint Hill resident Bill Dietel, a frequently outspoken supporter of the school system who pointed out that the school board (itself relatively new) was getting ready to welcome a new superintendent. “For four years it’s been underfunded . . . It is a modest budget,” he continued, noting that this was the first time in 30 years of attending these meetings that he had seen bus drivers and teachers in the audience.
“There was a master plan to replace the buses that turned into deferred maintenance – that’s costly business,” Dietel said. “You will pay for it later at a higher price.”
Dietel also noted that the school didn’t have anyone whose job focused on fundraising, which could help secure other federal grants or further community support and help alleviate some of the school board’s burden.
“This community prides itself on caring,” Dietel continued, “and it sounds like the majority of people here are prepared to pay the bill . . . Our schools are precious, as are our children.”
Rich Hogan, who lives in Amissville and teaches welding at Rappahannock County High School, made a special point to thank the many members of the community who had spoken in support of the budget. “We haven’t always felt like the community backs us a whole lot,” Hogan said.
Hogan also challenged anyone who believed the budget was too much to visit the schools in surrounding counties “and see what we don’t have compared to them.”
RCHS science teacher Dave Naser said the 3-percent raise was especially important for retaining and attracting new teachers who have already spent money either relocating or commuting to the county. Naser closed his comments by paraphrasing Jefferson, saying: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.”
Leslie Proper, another RCPS teacher, noted that she has been a teacher for 12 years and still has to pay for some classroom supplies out of her own pocket. “I’ve lost money every year I’ve worked here,” Proper said. “Of course I’m in it for the kids, but this is still a career . . . I have to have the materials to do my job.”
One of the final comments of the public forum belonged to Stonewall-Hawthorne district planning commissioner Gary Light, who suggested that showing a clear level of support for the teachers could help the county attract and retain a strong superintendent.
“People are struggling and no one likes to pay more,” Light admitted, “but increases to the school budget can help those who are struggling the most . . . our composite index score suggests we can pay more . . . There is no better priority than the education of our children.”
Though no final budget decisions were made Wednesday night, members of both boards prefaced their comments by thanking the public for attending the meeting and voicing their opinions. “If you don’t tell us these things, we have no way of knowing,” said Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek.
Both Hampton district supervisor S. Bryant Lee and Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish voiced their approval of the decision to start replacing the school’s buses, with Lee noting that Rappahannock isn’t like other counties: Because the buses here often travel to remote locations, having even one bus break down can cause excessive delays.
Lee stressed the need to rotate the buses to ensure the mileage and associated wear and tear was as evenly distributed as possible, but added that he didn’t think five buses were needed immediately, approving of the decision to only apply for two.
“The bus drivers are an integral entity who are largely overlooked,” said Parrish. “They’re the first up in the morning and get the ball rolling . . . I don’t know of any accidents with our fleet – that’s phenomenal.”
Parrish added that he was excited to see the addition of a elementary-level reading specialist in the budget and expressed a desire to possibly see one for the high school, eventually. “We have some things other districts don’t . . . and we do a bang-up job with what we have to work with.”
School board members Aline Johnson and Amy Hitt both expressed strong desires to see the school system’s teachers properly rewarded, with Johnson calling the raise “deserved.”
“It’s appalling to me that our teachers make so little . . . if it were up to me, I’d give you all a 10-percent increase,” said Hitt, who called the budget increase “a pittance” of what is needed. “I don’t want mediocre – I want rigor, I want the best.”
Hitt also defended the board’s decision last year to purchase new curtains for the stage ($14,000), update the library with a kiosk ($19,000), and purchase and install the new sign outside the high school ($15,000; see the related story on page 1) – money which Makela, among others, suggested could have been spent instead on new buses or other, greater needs.
“We have an award-winning drama team,” Hitt pointed out. “It’s the little things that make kids want to come here . . . we have to help facilitate their dreams.”
School board chairman John Lesinski closed the meeting by thanking everyone for the “civil discourse. I wish the kids could’ve been here to hear it . . . I think they would have been proud.”
Lesinski admitted that, as a newly elected board last year, there might have been things they should have done differently, but said that focusing on issues like the high school’s new sign were “a distraction from the bigger picture.”
“It [the budget increase] looks like a cost . . . and it hurts. But it’s about doing the right thing.”
There are two major dates remaining in the budget calendar: A public hearing on the overall county budget at 7 p.m. on April 29 in the elementary school gym. Days later, the supervisors are expected to approve a school budget, most likely at their 2 p.m. meeting on May 6. Their approval of a county budget must come before May 31.