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Education funding pitched in Stafford

Funding for quality education was the argument of many schools supporters at the Stafford County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday night.

But just how to get there is unclear.

During a two-hour public hearing on the $252 million budget and tax rates for the upcoming year, the board chambers were filled with teachers and school employees wearing red shirts. Many asked for raises, which they say will entice the strongest teachers to stay in the county system, rather than leaving for higher-paying districts.

“You all have to give us a little bit of something,” said Robert Thomas, a longtime physical eduction teacher who says he loves his job, but not for the money.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve a budget at its April 23 meeting. It’ll be for fiscal 2014, which begins this July 1 and ends June 30, 2014. Last month, County Administrator Anthony Romanello presented his initial budget proposal. The finance committee will have a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. April 18.

A large piece of the county budget goes to schools, for operational costs and capital projects. The county is currently recommending a $2.6 million increase over last year’s operating budget, for a total of $109 million.

About two dozen people spoke on behalf of the budget for the county schools, particularly for raises for employees.

School Board members have asked for $18 million more, of which $12 million would go to funding raises. These include a step increase (approximately a 2.5 percent bump), and a 6 percent raise (partially offset by increased contributions to the Virginia Retirement System).

Steps typically reflect years of service and their associated salary scales. But the school division missed a few years when the economy struggled, so employees are currently two steps behind.

“I expected to get paid for five years in because that’s what I signed up for,” said David Vita, comparing that promise to the one Marine recruiters give. Vita was recognized as Teacher of the Year in 2011.

He said several others who received the honor in the county and in individual schools have left the system.

In March, about 250 people flooded the board chambers and additional rooms in the county government complex to voice their opinions before the county supervisors advertised tax rates. They can be lowered, but cannot be raised without a new public hearing.

Theresa Thompson, president of the Stafford Education Association and a 24-year teacher, asked the board to fund schools, and keep a competitive pay scale.

“You’re going to come to a position that the teachers that are at my level for years of experience are going to retire,” Thompson said. “Those that have 10 to 12 years that are really strong are going to go to other counties. You won’t have anyone to mentor those young teachers that are coming behind us.”

She said if the school system’s quality goes downhill, it’s increasingly difficult to bring it back up.

Eric Herr brought two half-pint jars to the lectern to demonstrate what priorities should be in the budget process. A larger rock stuck out from the top, while smaller stones filled much of the jar.

“If we can’t fit this rock in the budget we have a problem and we have to fix it,” Herr said, describing teachers as the rock of the education system. “If you really care about your teachers, why don’t you put them in first and then see if you can make it work.”

Herr placed the larger rock in the jar, then poured the little pebbles on top to show that everything would fit.

While no one disagreed with the need for quality education, speakers gave varied ideas for how to get there.

“There is a lot of emotional buildup,” said Andy Rogers. He suggested looking at the schools as a business and basing funding on analysis on return on investment.

Five people also asked the board to cut the boat tax. Stafford advertised a reduced rate for this personal property tax after boat enthusiasts and marina owners said the high bills were chasing the biggest boats out of the county.

But Jimmy Franklin, managing partner of Hope Springs Marina, would like to see it down to essentially zero. Last year, the boat tax brought in about $500,000.

“It’s almost insignificant compared to the size of the overall budget,” Franklin said, describing the tax as a “splinter” that hurts a lot even if it’s small.

Fred Elsis said he received a bill for a boat he didn’t even have. “The boat tax is just ridiculous. I’m just appalled they would waste this time for silliness like this.”

Representatives from partner agencies also made the case for funding. Those included Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters, Micah Ecumenical Ministries, disAbility Resource Center, Mental Health America of Fredericksburg, Rappahannock Legal Services and the Tri-County and City Soil and Water Conservation District.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975