After suggesting they want more control of exactly how the county’s school system spends its funding, Republicans on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors launched a full-scale attack on school leadership Tuesday night, questioning the division’s priorities, accounting and commitment to instruction.
Leading the charge was newly-seated Republican Bob Weir (Gainesville District), who spent almost 30 minutes of the school division’s preliminary budget presentation berating division finance leadership and School Board Chair Babur Lateef about the system’s $1.6 billion fiscal 2024 budget.
Among other things, Weir accused the division of not being in compliance with state expenditure reporting laws, although school division Chief Financial Officer John Wallingford insisted his office was. Weir further suggested that he wanted to do away with lump-sum allocations to the school system.
Wallingford, Lateef and Superintendent LaTanya McDade were presenting their spending plan at Tuesday night’s supervisors meeting.
Although there seems to be no appetite among the county board’s Democratic majority to adopt wide-ranging changes to the school division’s funding formula, Tuesday night’s confrontation could indicate that if elected in the fall, a Republican-controlled board might look to upend the way funds are transferred, giving supervisors more say about how precisely the school system’s money is spent.
Under the current revenue-sharing agreement between the county and the schools, 57.23% of the county’s general revenues are automatically committed to the school system every fiscal year.
At the start of the budget process, Prince William County Public Schools leadership takes the projected county revenue and funding from the state and federal governments and draws up a budget for the coming fiscal year. The elected School Board then amends and passes the budget, before bringing it to the Board of County Supervisors for adoption on their end.
But on the heels of comments from Coles District Supervisor Yesli Vega last month about having more input in school spending, Weir suggested on Tuesday that he would like to see the the county board set funding on a one-by-one basis for the nine school spending categories laid out in Virginia code: instruction, administration, attendance and health, transportation, operation and maintenance, food services, facilities, debt, technology and contingency reserves.
“I’m just not one who’s likely to approve a lump-sum blank check; I just don’t believe in operating that way with the fiduciary responsibility we have. And I think that’s heightened when I examine some of the stuff in your budget,” Weir said. He drew attention to several six-figure salaries among the school division’s top administrators at the Kelly Leadership Center, the school system’s administrative office.
Weir also questioned the addition of new full-time division employees in finance and other departments in the fiscal 2024 budget, saying that the division was “ballooning” central office staff levels while neglecting instructional needs at schools.
School leaders give their side
School officials pushed back Tuesday, saying that many of the new finance positions were either repurposed positions from information technology or were paid for by federal pandemic relief funds.
Of the 308 new full-time employee roles added in the fiscal 2024 budget, McDade said, only 14 would be based at the Kelly Leadership Center, with the remainder working in school buildings as teachers, principals and assistant principals or in other support roles. Some positions added into the central office’s budget would also be working in schools on a daily basis.
Responding to Weir, Lateef pointed out that the joint audit committee operated between the county and School Board continues to check the school division’s accounting every year, making no “material findings.”
“There’s nothing that anyone who’s listening this evening should feel like they do not have assurance about,” Lateef said. “Let me be crystal clear about that, crystal clear. Now if there’s a problem with your contention that we are growing, maybe, central office, we continue … to be not as well-served. We don’t have as many central office employees as other school divisions our size. We have been very frugal with that. We have staffing studies that can show that and comparisons and benchmark work that we can certainly share with you over the years.”
With over 90,000 students and 94 school buildings, Prince William County Public Schools is the second-largest school system in Virginia, after Fairfax County.
“Let me be very crystal clear,” Weir shot back, “I’m looking at the numbers on the [full-time-equivalent positions] that you’re reporting in your own budget … You are placing a large number of new administrative positions in the Kelly Center … You’ve literally doubled the size of division counsel. I get that enrollment is growing, I get program costs are growing, I get requirements are growing. But you’re growing the admin division at a level, in my view, [that] is unsustainable in the long-term.”
School officials insisted their budget is made up of relatively small increases in central office staffing levels.
While the board’s five Democratic supervisors did ask questions pertaining to learning recovery, new school construction and school security, they spent most of their portion of the agenda item trying to shield school division officials from the criticisms.
Weir and Vega also went after spending that falls into the “attendance and health” category, which in the fiscal 2024 budget grows by roughly 18%, while the instructional category spending grows by about 1%. At the same time, Vega went after the decision to close schools and talked about the toll the pandemic and ensuing school closures have had on Black and Hispanic students.
“I can personally understand why there seems to be a little bit of heartburn as you’re presenting your budget. Because we cannot forget what has transpired over the last three years,” Vega said Tuesday. “We know what the pandemic did in terms of learning loss … in particular with Black and Brown students … I get a lot of emails from concerned parents and even concerned educators as to what we’re doing and the direction that you all are going in, and are we really getting the best bang for our buck.”
Vega also questioned why the division had seen such significant test score decreases since the pandemic. McDade said the same was occurring all over the country and that research indicated that it might take three to five years to recover for most students.
With federal pandemic money in hand, the school division has added hundreds of instructional positions across the current budget and the previous budget aimed at learning recovery after all indicators of achievement fell both locally and nationwide after about a year of mostly-virtual schooling.
The proposed fiscal 2024 spending plan makes some of its biggest additions in support staffing. For example, McDade explained Tuesday, the budget would add 75 special education teaching assistants, 14 instructional coaches and 62 parent liaisons intended to help schools connect with parents – and students – who have become less engaged with school. The new liaisons would mean every school in the division has one.
Since the onset of the pandemic, schools have seen a dramatic rise in the amount of chronic absenteeism. A recent school division report showed that nearly 25% of students were considered chronically absent during the first two quarters of this school year.
“The parent liaisons … schools were funding them themselves, especially those schools with low family and community engagement where there wasn’t a lot of parent engagement,” McDade said. “And so the parent liaisons that schools were paying for were to … remove barriers for access to information and resources. And that proved to be very successful in getting more parents engaged in partners for education.”
Weir continued to press, though, including by going after Lateef for not having a firm price tag on future capital improvements. The school system’s capital improvement program has ballooned in cost. Recent schools projections show that the division could have to issue over $600 million in additional debt over the next decade due to cost increases. The county’s 14th high school alone has increased in projected cost by over $100 million.
According to Lateef and others, that’s the result of general inflation and increased material costs.
But the final capital numbers remain in flux, and the projections have come down from an estimate provided in January. Lateef said with the time horizons on many of those projects, it would be difficult to know exactly how much the new buildings and renovations would cost, but he said the school system has been a prudent steward of both its and the county’s AAA bond rating.
Weir wasn’t satisfied.
“I’m having less and less faith with every number that’s being read out,” Weir said. “ … I have an expectation that somebody that’s in charge of the finances of a multibillion-dollar entity would have more than a passing familiarity with the budget. Mr. Lateef, your comments, with respect to the facilities … I would hope that your numbers were a hell of a lot more firm than they are right now.”
57.23% of the county’s general revenues are automatically committed to the school system every fiscal year.
Sounds like a use it or lose it proposition to me and we all know what kind of results we get from that.
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