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Stafford schools want raises, new hires

MORE: Read more Stafford County news

Stafford County teachers could see more money in next year’s paychecks.

But they shouldn’t plan to spend that money just yet.

First, the School Board would have to convince county supervisors that they need $21.5 million more than this year’s budget.

Interim Superintendent William Symons presented a budget proposal Tuesday night that includes teacher raises, more hires and new buses.

But the budget also included $12.9 million in costs that Symon called unavoidable: rising health care expenses, mandatory state retirement system increases, new textbooks and more capital outlay as recently required by county supervisors.

“I wish that wasn’t the number,” Symons said as he presented his budget to the School Board. “That $12.9 million is the elephant in the room and it gets in the way of asking for what are really the needs of the children.”

Symons said that the school division has one of the lowest rates of spending per student in the region, with $9,165 being spent on each child this year. That number is below Spotsylvania by nearly $1,000, according to data Symons presented at the meeting. And it’s about half of what Arlington spends per student.

Symons also presented information showing that starting teachers in Stafford make less than those in nearby divisions. And if Stafford’s school division doesn’t raise that number, teacher morale will suffer and more educators will quit, he said. “Some of our best people are leaving us for higher salaries and less stressful positions.”

Symons’ proposed budget includes a 3 percent increase to employees, which would cover a 3 percent increase in mandatory payments to the Virginia Retirement System. Stafford has three more years to increase the required payments by 3 percent—and must also give employees a pay boost to offset those costs. Symons’ proposal also includes a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for employees, which would cost $4.2 million.

The budget does include a $1.4 million decrease—by cutting the early retirement program once known as the Bridge.

The School Board will hold a public hearing on the budget Feb. 11, then tackle the specifics of the proposed spending plan.

School Board members said the budget could be a tough sell. Last year’s budget talks often grew contentious, after then-Superintendent Randy Bridges first suggested an increase of $40 million. County supervisors and School Board members meet in offices that are less than a mile apart, across Courthouse Road. But that divide seemed bigger last year as the boards squared off over school costs, with supervisors suggesting the school division cut central office costs to find the money for teacher raises.

This year, the School Board has a finance committee that has already been meeting with the Board of Supervisors’ finance committee. School Board members have expressed hopes that the committee meetings will help ease some of the tensions over money.

School Board Chairwoman Nanette Kidby said the budget outlook was “not the picture we hoped for,” but she urged parents and teachers to remain positive during the budget talks. Kidby said that it was the School Board members’ responsibility to fight for the money.

Symons didn’t predict an easy skirmish but predicted that if the school division didn’t get more money, then positions would be slashed, class sizes would grow and morale would erode.

“This is going to be a tough stand,” he said. “You’ve got to go across the street and you’ve got to convince them how serious these cuts are going to be.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973 aumble@freelancestar.com

WHAT’S PROPOSED

Proposed Stafford County schools budget at a glance:

$273.8 million: Operating budget for FY2015

$21.5 million: Increase over current budget

8.53 percent: Increase over current budget

$4.2 million: For salary increases

$3.6 million: For health benefits increases

 

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