The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Stafford Schools make case for additional $16M
More than 200 supporters of Stafford County schools flooded the Board of Supervisors chambers last night, speaking in favor of giving teachers raises. But several other county residents showed up, demanding lower taxes.
School supporters said that Stafford teachers earn low wages and can’t make ends meet. Low-tax supporters pointed out that sequestration furloughs are looming over the county’s many residents who work for the military and the federal government.
The battle between those wanting lower taxes and those wanting raises for teachers reflected the current situation involving supervisors and School Board members.
School Board Chairwoman Stephanie Johnson addressed the supervisors early in the evening, defending the school division’s request for $18 million more than the county gave the schools last year.
Stafford schools have had to make do, limiting teacher raises and increasing class sizes, Johnson said. Stafford County schools have the lowest teacher starting salary of the neighboring districts, she said. And Stafford’s school division is not able to compete with those districts for quality teachers, she said.
“We are at a tipping point,” Johnson said. “Maintaining the status quo, in essence, is moving backwards.”
But supervisors grilled the School Board, questioning their budget process and their money management. Supervisors said that the School Board members approved a budget without first scrubbing it of excess.
Supervisor Paul Milde said that School Board members were always coming to the supervisors with a hand out for more money. “And it’s always the teacher raises that seem to be held in the balance,” Milde said.
“Because 85 percent of our budget is salary,” Johnson replied.
“But you know as well as we do that we don’t have $18 million,” Milde said. “You will not get that money because we do not have it.”
Chairwoman Susan Stimpson said, “This is not an issue of whether or not teachers deserve raises.”
But dozens of teachers approached the podium, saying that the lack of raises makes them feel undervalued and leaves many looking for other jobs.
Public comment at the meeting lasted just under three hours, as speaker after speaker weighed in on the county’s budget. Supervisors were scheduled to vote on an advertised tax rate but hadn’t held that vote by press time.
School supporters wore red to show their allegiance to the increased education budget and for most of the evening, most of the seats in the board chambers were filled with people in red.
Teacher Amy Wescoat just filed her letter of resignation with Superintendent Randy Bridges, a decision she said came because she could no longer afford to teach in Stafford County. She told the supervisors that the lack of raises in recent years made her feel undervalued, and the supervisors’ comments and body language throughout the meeting made her feel even less appreciated.
Parent Diane DeVito said that she has two children in Stafford schools—one in special education and one in gifted education. “I’m a taxpayer and I’m very frustrated that my teachers, my quality teachers, my quality bus drivers, my quality administrators have to stand here and beg you for money,” DeVito said.
But other county residents countered that the budget discussion wasn’t about raises, but about whether the school division was using money wisely.
“Maybe we don’t need a tax hike; maybe we need someone to look at the budget and see what’s not being used efficiently,” Karen Clemente said. “We cannot shoulder any more of the burden—you’re going to have to figure out what you can do with the money you have to make it more efficient for the school district.”
And Eric Herr suggested that the sea of red was merely a tactic in the battle between the two county boards.
“The School Board and administrators’ refusal to plan, pick and prioritize have turned our teachers into human shields in the budget war,” he said.
English teacher Dewey Reynolds said that the educators were tired of being pawns in the battle, and said that teachers would “refuse to be manipulated” by refusing to attend early morning and late afternoon faculty meetings, return after-hours emails from parents, supervise student dances and set up classrooms in August.
Reynolds said the supervisors showed a lack of concern for teachers last year when they voted to lower the tax rate by 1 cent after teachers asked for more money for schools. He said that cut gave the average Stafford homeowner $26. Last year, the median Stafford home saved $25 in real estate taxes.
“I hope those families enjoyed the large pizza and breadsticks that money bought them,” Reynolds said.
One county resident hoped the boards could find a compromise and give teachers raises without raising taxes.
“I don’t want a tax hike but yet I want to see fairly compensated teachers and drivers,” Robert Betts said. “I’m not arguing their cause; on the contrary , I don’t want a tax hike. Go to the School Board, examine the books, see if they prioritize well, because you’re supposed to be stewards of the money.”
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973 email@example.com