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Teacher raises in Stafford in doubt

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Math test writers should ditch the trains traveling on converging tracks and instead offer an even more improbable arithmetic problem: calculating how much extra money Stafford County supervisors are actually giving schools next year.

The Board of Supervisors adopted a budget that appeared to give the school division $5.8 million extra for the next fiscal year—an amount supervisors said showed a commitment to teacher raises.

But at a work session Tuesday night, School Board members said that they’re actually getting an increase of $2.7 million, far short of the amount needed to boost employee pay.

And the conflicting amounts could mean the difference between teachers getting raises or not.

The School Board had approved a budget with $13 million in raises for teachers, bus drivers and other employees. But that budget was crafted without any concrete numbers from the supervisors, who hold the county’s purse strings.

The supervisors’ approved budget gave the school division $109.5 million in operating funds. That’s technically $2.7 million more than the schools received from the county last year.

But supervisors were also adding in $3.1 million of state money that they rolled into the schools budget as a local transfer, said Patty Sullivan, director of grants and budgets for Stafford County Public Schools. Meanwhile, the school division had accounted for that money separately, creating the discrepancy. That $3.1 million must be used to give school employees a 2 percent raise, or the school division would forfeit the cash. And the money is only for positions included in the standards of quality, which are positions recommended by state standards. The Stafford school division employs more people than those standards and would have to find other money to give a raise to those extra employees.

When county supervisors approved the budget, they said that it included enough money to give school employees a step increase, which averages to a 2.5 percent raise for most workers. Giving step increases would cost at least $4 million, Sullivan said Tuesday night.

“There were promises made from the dais of the budget session of the Board of Supervisors that we did not quite understand,” said School Board Chairwoman Stephanie Johnson.

Repeatedly, School Board members said that the county’s budget misleads the public into thinking that teacher raises are a guaranteed part of it. School Board members said they remained committed to raises. But they warned that it would take some tough cuts to come up with the money for salary increases.

The School Board had also asked for more money to hire special education teachers and paraprofessionals. Sue Clarke, the director of special education, told the board that the division’s special education preschool programs don’t comply with state-mandated student-teacher ratios. And in September, she expects autism and learning-disabled classrooms to also exceed the ratios.

Clarke told the board that she has already heard from nine families who have students with autism and who expect to enroll in Stafford schools this fall.

“That’s more than one classroom,” she said.

And the early-intervention programs are overflowing with students who will qualify for the county’s early childhood special education programs, which are already out of compliance, Clarke said. The School Board asked the finance department to come to a work session Thursday night with figures on what it would take to get only the preschool classes in compliance, and not what it would cost to pre-emptively hire employees to prevent overflowing the other special education classes.

School Board member Dana Reinboldt blamed the supervisors for putting the school officials in that position.

“I’m shocked that the children who have the greatest needs are not considered important,” she said. “I’m speechless. After 10 years of being on this board, to see how low the value of our children has become on the totem pole of this county is disappointing.”

And the budget contained even more bad news: The new early retirement program the school division is contemplating could cost significantly more than first assumed. The division has to scrap its current program, after lawyers advised that it is illegal. The new program can’t have a maximum age limit, because that would be age discrimination, said Brenda O’Brien, director of payroll and benefits.

Last week, the School Board learned that ditching the age limit could add $300,000 to the program’s $1 million cost. But Tuesday night, O’Brien told the board that some of the program’s participants who had aged out in the past few years called and asked if they could be added back into the new program. O’Brien said that legal counsel advised that the school system would have to allow those employees to participate to avoid age discrimination suits.

Those suits have a statute of limitations of two years, O’Brien said. When she looked over past participants, she realized that the school division could have to pay $250,000 more to include those former employees. When also including employees who would have aged out of the program sometime this year but now have to be offered the early retirement incentives, that could bring the total of the new program up to about $1.7 million. School Board members asked for more numbers on the program, and asked a task force of retirees and employees to try and come up with a cheaper plan. The School Board will meet again Thursday to talk budget numbers. They also anticipate a budget work session next Tuesday evening.

School Board member Dewayne McOsker said that the board will have to go back to the drawing board and start over, trying to find money for the raises. The board will consider increasing health insurance costs. Members initially expressed a desire to absorb the increasing costs but now may pass those along. They are also considering not hiring a social worker for homeless students or a gifted education teacher, putting off new school bus purchases and not trying to reduce class sizes, all measures included in the schools’ adopted budget.

“We need to forget the adopted budget, that’s out the window,” McOsker said. “We need to have a discussion on what we want to keep. Leadership is making tough decisions.” Do I want to cut special education funding? Heck no, people will throw tomatoes at you for that.”

The board also voted to award a contract to HESS Construction + Engineering Services to rebuild Stafford High School. The bid includes a standalone automotive lab but does not include a third practice field for sports.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973


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