The Rappahannock County School Board held its first public work session on the 2014-2015 school budget Tuesday night (Feb. 18), and while several people advocated for more public disclosure, almost no one had negative comments, as the proposed budget sits balanced at just under $12.47 million — same as last year.
Superintendent Donna Matthews began the 90-minute meeting by recapping for the board members (and the 20 or so others gathered in the high school auditorium) the program cuts approved at a Jan. 28 work session to keep any overall increase out of the new budget.
All told, the board approved a step raise for teachers (a $41,342 cost) and still managed to trim $237,070 from last year’s budget. Those cuts included $15,000 for the (now vacant) Next Step college-placement coordinator position, a $95,000 reduction in elementary and high school textbooks (possible because no new textbooks need to be adopted this year), $22,000 from the school maintenance fund and more. (A copy of the budget is available at rappahannockschools.us; click on “School Board” and then “Budget.”)
Matthews also said the school division might receive more money than originally projected from the state — as it stands this week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget would cut $68,000 in state support from Rappahannock schools — but nothing would be certain until early next month.
Headwaters executive director Jane Bowling-Wilson was the first of the night’s six speakers, and began by praising the school board’s decision to absorb the full cost of the Farm-to-Table program this year. She then added that Headwaters has already “started working to cover the Next Step [coordinator] position,” and “hope to have someone in place very soon.”
The lack of a Next Step coordinator was one of the major complaints raised at the school board’s last meeting, as several speakers, including Janet Davis and Bill Dietel, raised concerns about the position’s impact. “I’m worried about the loss of the Next Step coordinator,” Davis said, especially since it helped students “maximize their time here.”
“It’s been an uphill battle for those of us [in the community] who have long thought we could do better by these kids,” Dietel said, adding that he had “many concerns about what’s been revealed on the school budget . . . You should seek every bit of help you can . . . [and] you can’t do that with part time or pay-by-hour help.
“You will lose friends if you don’t maintain educational quality,” Dietel cautioned.
Stonewall-Hawthorne’s Toni Egger, Bowling-Wilson’s Headwaters predecessor, also implored the board to provide funds for the Next Step coordinator position Tuesday night. Egger said that when the program started eight years, only 50 percent of RCHS students were attending two- or four-year colleges or trade schools — now, she said, that number is closer to 80 percent.
“It’s been a huge success and a vital complement to the guidance counselor position . . . [you should] keep it robust for eighth-graders, freshmen, sophomores and juniors.”
Mike Mahoney of the Hampton district suggested that, if the board were looking to cut further expenses down the line, it should turn an eye toward the athletics department, instead of just focusing on academics — a sentiment backed up by Jackson district’s Ron Makela. “Athletics shouldn’t be sacred,” argued Makela, adding that he’d like to see true “across-the-board cuts” in the future.
Mahoney also expressed some concerns over the cuts to the maintenance funds. “How much of this is based on actual evidence, and how much is based on hope?” Mahoney wondered. “Some of these cuts for expenses seem out of your control . . . It’s one thing not to paint something; it’s quite another to have to turn off the lights.”
Piedmont’s Tom Junk was one of the night’s last speakers, and applauded the board (and Matthews) for presenting a “realistic” budget. “It’s refreshing to see a superintendent come in and put a realistic budget in front of citizens,” Junk said. “This county’s citizens will support [your budget] — you just have to make your case.”
Afterwards, it was the board’s turn to thank the public for their responses. “I’d like to thank everyone who spoke tonight for their positive, well thought out ideas,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne representative Larry Grove. “I applaud you for it. You’re thinking hard, and that’s what we want you to do.”
“We’re not going to please everyone,” admitted Piedmont school board member Aline Johnson. “But we can please a majority, and that’s what we’re going for.”