One of the exercises in state and local government course I teach at Virginia Commonwealth University asks students to assume the role of school board members. Then under a tight budget I ask them to allocate expenditures for increasing teacher salaries, keeping up with a growing student body, building new schools and, oh yes, buy buses, pay utility bills and everything else I can throw in to make them feel overwhelmed.
Most seem to understand that’s the point of the exercise. Namely, to realize that the demands are always increasing, the pool of resources rarely if ever adequate and that sometimes it feels like all you’re doing is keeping your head above water.
That’s a class exercise. College stuff. But it’s all too real and represents the situation that a lot of school systems face every year. Stafford County is a good example.
The financial stresses are severe. Teachers are leaving in record numbers, salaries just aren’t keeping up, and the student population is probably going to grow faster than projected. Unfortunately, we probably haven’t built enough schools to keep up.
Let’s start with the teachers. The people who teach our children are the most important asset in the county school system. Their talent, their training, their ability and their commitment defines the school system.
This year the turnover rate for teachers reached an all-time high of 15.7 percent. We just aren’t paying enough. What that means is that, for the most part, our most trained and experienced teachers aren’t staying. Some are taking better paying teaching jobs in other counties and some are leaving teaching altogether. That hemorrhaging has to stop.
Recent school budgets, both with funds provided by the county and the state, just haven’t provided enough money to increase teachers’ salaries by the amounts required to stay competitive.
This year’s school board adopted budget, the budget sent to the Board of Supervisors for approval, proposes a base increase of 1 percent and a 1.5 percent cost of living increase.
It also includes increases based on a market adjustment formula that means some teachers will see more than that.
The budget also promises to cover any increases demanded by the Virginia Retirement System. This is a good step in the right direction. That is if the Board of Supervisors goes along with it.
But, just like my class exercise, that’s not the only challenge that schools are facing. The other is classroom space, and it’s going to get tight. According to the county website, there are dozens of active residential developments in Stafford County. Some are small, just a few homes, while others are substantially larger.
The forecast that the county government seems to accept is a 1 percent annual increase in the daily student population each year. However, given that we have more students per household than any county in Northern Virginia and with so many new homes under construction, that 1 percent estimate seems a bit on the low side.
The school system produces an excellent chart that, depending on the capacity level, uses green, yellow and red superimposed over the number of students by year for each school. Green means the size is about right, yellow signifies we’re getting close to maxing out, and red indicates that a school is over capacity.
The high school situation is scary. By 2027 every high school save one, at least according to this chart, will be dramatically over capacity. The same is true for half a dozen elementary and two middle schools. And that’s based on what seems to be a low-ball estimate of student growth.
It has been argued that Stafford County has managed to avoid raising taxes by putting off critical expenditures for the schools. That’s not to say the schools don’t get increases, they do; but for the most part, they haven’t kept up with the demands on the school system.
Stafford County — its board of supervisors and school board — are now at a critical juncture. They have to make some hard decisions about the future of our schools. We have gotten by putting off salary increases for teachers and scrimping on building new schools. But, the thing is, we really haven’t gotten by.
Perhaps not by design but certainly in actions, we’ve disinvested in an important part of what makes Stafford County so special: our schools.
Now is the time, in steady, thoughtful and consistent increases in school budgets, to reverse that trend.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.