Building the schools budget, awaiting state budget approval

The School Board hosted a public hearing on the public school budget last Thursday night (Feb. 18) in the high school auditorium, allowing Superintendent Donna Matthews to present the current “state of the schools” and to outline her goals for budget funding. Afterwards, five members of the public rose to make comments, touching on drinking water concerns, transparency of financial information for the taxpayers, facilities management needs and passing teachers over for salary increases.

Last week, the state House and Senate swapped budgets for review, and they should submit a bottom line budget by early March. The governor’s current proposed budget presented in late December is under review, and if it passes, the state government aid to the county public schools will increase by nearly $200,000 from last year.

Matthews will present an official budget to the Board of Supervisors in a public joint budget hearing with the School Board in the auditorium March 15 at 7 p.m., where the board and members of the public alike will have a chance to comment and ask questions about specific costs and programs requested for the 2016-2017 school year. Last year’s school budget was $12.4 million.

Among the goals stated by Matthews in her presentation: Adding four student slots to the existing Mountain Vista Governor’s School program, increases in staff health care expenses, salary step increases for all staff, financing $11,000 for a Valley Health sports trainer for the school, increasing opportunities for students to take EMT and CNA classes in Fairfax, Madison and Page Counties, and continuing the FLEX and pre-kindergarten programs that started last year. There are facilities updates required for handicapped accessibility to bathrooms and window replacement at the elementary school, among other repairs.

Since Matthews became superintendent of schools in 2013, both schools have achieved full accreditation, and increased SOL test pass rates among students. A stronger emphasis has been placed on career training, and a Panther FLEX program was introduced this year to allow advanced students opportunities to complete hands-on research experiments while allowing struggling students additional one-on-one time with teachers for remediation to catch up in certain academic areas.

“We’re trying to be very frugal with what we’re spending, and trying not to ask for huge increases. So during the budget year, I am only asking for a $15k increase,” Matthews said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to provide the best education that we can for our students . . . It is unknown right now how much the General Assembly actual budget will be, how much we’re going to get. Is this a pipe dream that we’re going to get this 170-something-thousand dollars extra? What will the health insurance increases be?”

School Board Chairman Wes Mills said now is the time to provide your local authorities with feedback and suggestions.

“I’ll remind you that, in these particular weeks ahead, the superintendent has the responsibility to get this budget together and get it to the board so that we can begin to have this discussion. You have this opportunity over the coming month to contact your representative and let them know; this is the time of year we’re discussing priorities, we’re discussing gaps, different mechanisms to get information out to people,” Mills said. “So I encourage you to call, to write, to email, to have a conversation with your representative about what it is that’s on your mind. And tell that to your neighbors . . . And that will be our flow of information, to make sure that we’re doing the best we can for our children and the best we can for our taxpayers.”

Public comment

Ron Makela of the Jackson District requested the board to involve him in the budget making process, and asked for financial transparency in relation to school projects like the paving project completed last year for handicapped spaces at the schools. Makela said he was unable to find any specific amounts or costs listed on the BoardDocs website for the school board.

“As a taxpayer, I don’t mind paying taxes for the school to educate our children, but I like to know where the money is going,” Makela said. “My request is that as you go down the road, next year or whatever, that somehow through that BoardDocs process, that you get that information out so that taxpayers who are interested can look in there and find this and not have to make a trip to the school board office and perhaps file a FOIA form. Please consider the taxpayers.”

  • Rachel Bynum of the Piedmont District has two sons in the elementary school, in grades two and five. She said that there are several bathroom stalls in the elementary school with doors missing, and that privacy in bathrooms is important to kids. She noted that the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) has incurred the costs of water filters to make the school water drinkable for the students and faculty, and that drinking water should be covered by the school budget.

“It was considered by many parents to be a need at the time, and something that couldn’t be immediately purchased a few years ago,” Bynum said. “At this point I believe it would be a good faith effort, rather than relying on the PTO to pay for filters, to put it in the budget. I feel our budget should cover all the needs of our children, and drinking water is one of those.”

  • Mark Ramey of the Stonewall-Hawthorne District has taught at the high school for 11 years.

“It’s very unbecoming to come up and speak about the money you don’t make. But what has happened is we’ve become accustomed to passing teachers over with the step raises. I’ve had my pay frozen five times in the last eight years, and so that has become the norm for us,” Ramey said.

He noted that a couple years ago teachers took a pretty big hit with higher health care costs — $1,300 or $1,400 a year for him personally. “It’s taken me a number of years to get back to what I was making. I now make about $60 more a month than I did in 2008. It’s just that every year it seems to come down to the same thing, where we have to be frugal with the taxpayers money, and one of the first things we look at for balancing the budget or making it acceptable to the taxpayers is no step raises. Again, after 11 years, this has turned into the norm.”

  • Amy Hitt of Jackson District, a former school board member, commended the schools for facilities management and advocated salary increases for teachers and staff.

“Just to address some questions raised about the paving project, as to where you can find the bills: If you look in BoardDocs, there’s a list called warrants. You can’t see that until the following month until it’s all paid out, but it’s there, and is open to the public,” Hitt said. “And when people say in the community that the facilities are not being taken care of, if the staff doesn’t know about it, they can’t fix it . . . Suppose the bathroom stalls didn’t have doors on them, then go to Jimmy Swindler and tell him to fix the doors. So instead of complaining and talking about it on RappNet, or wherever else, why don’t you just pick up the telephone and call the facilities director or call the principal?”

Stacey Witt of the PTO said that the PTO was asked by a parent to put in water filters, “which I do think was a great idea. And I don’t think it hurts our PTO by continuing to support that, by buying those filters. Yes, it is a cost to us, but it’s something we are more than willing to do.”

Stonewall-Hawthorne District representative Larry Grove commended Matthews for her budget concepts.

“It’s a budget with incentives and initiatives that are good for our kids, and it is important that we continue to grow to become better. If you don’t become better, you’re standing still. And if you stand still long enough, you’re going backward,” Grove said. “I want to commend the additional slots for the governor’s school. The full time trainer, that’s a no brainer, just a wonderful thing you have done. It’s an ambitious budget, but it is one we can stand behind.”