, 2014


Hearing held on ‘sacrificial’ school budget;
the cost per pupil estimated to be $11,941

by Audrey Thomasson

KILMARNOCK—The Lancaster County School Board held a public hearing last week to discuss next year’s proposed operating budget of $15,742,451 including $633,667 for food service.

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Acting superintendent Sandy Spears said the county’s portion of the budget would be $10,627,272, an increase of $201,788, or 1.9%. The cost per pupil is estimated at $11,941 based on an estimated 1,243 students, including pre-kindergarden.

The increase reflects a return to the 180-day school calendar, which was reduced by two weeks in 2010, identified as a cause for the three schools receiving “accreditation with warning” last year by the Department of Education. The longer school year will result in additional costs for extended contracts for teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, substitute teachers and others. It also includes additional fuel costs for buses and maintenance.

Another factor contributing to budget growth are Virginia Retirement System increases proposed by the governor, a nearly 3% increase.

District 1 parent Richard Pleasants praised Spears for returning to the longer calendar year and going back to the two bus schedules.

“I’d like to see the Gifted and Talented program go up,” he said, noting the schools only budgeted $88,138 to the program as compared to $679,657 budgeted for special education. “I’d like to see more kids tested for Gifted and Talented...in the primary school,” he added.

“The Gifted and Talented program is equally important,” said Spears.

Primary school principal Ernest Palin added, “Every second-grader is tested for Gifted and Talented.”

District 5 resident Bill Warren, who was instrumental in the development of Mercer Place apartments for teachers, called the budget “excellent” and criticized the shorter school year.

“In hindsight, it was a mistake to go to a 990-hour school year,” he said. He suggested the school board call the proposed budget “...the path to full accreditation. Maybe this is the time to get supervisors on board. I don’t think there’s a supervisor who doesn’t want to see the schools succeed.”

Board chairman Dr. Robert Westbrook said the board will meet this summer to review the step system in an effort to make salaries fair and competitive with other districts.

“We have cut this budget pretty much to the bone,” he said. “This is a sacrificial budget.”

Teacher Linda Coye praised the board for promising to review the step system which advances teachers’ pay for the number of years they teach in the district.

“Employees are tickled to hear there will be a summer session to look at the step,” she said. “I’ve been hearing ‘sacrificial budget’ for five years. We’ve had percentage increases, but no step increases. The only way a teacher here can advance is to move out. The building could be crumbling, but if we have master teachers, we’ll do well. Do something this year to keep teachers.”

Coye noted she is on step 16, even though she has taught for over 20 years.

District 4 resident Spike Nunn noted that in the past 50 years he’s lived here “off and on,” new teachers at Lancaster move over to Northumberland schools. He asked why the cost per student in Lancaster is higher than surrounding counties.

“We have fewer students per class which translates...to higher costs per student,” Westbrook replied. He also noted the poverty level in Lancaster is much higher than in neighboring counties, with 71.3% of Lancaster students receiving free and reduced price lunches.

A long discussion ensued on the state’s “unfair composite index” which requires Lancaster County to contribute nearly 80% of the school budget while places like Loudon County pay considerably less at 56.6%, according to District 1 member Bob Smart.

“It’s a highly politicized thing,” he said.

Smart, who has a history of criticizing the Lancaster school district’s inefficiencies and high cost per pupil, said he had to set that aside in response to the district’s standing on accreditation.

“It must be effectiveness first—efficiency second,” he said.

“The only way to reduce the cost per child is to reduce personnel” in the classrooms, said Spears.

Westbrook noted the Wiley Foundation’s funding for the 3-year-old program is winding down and those costs will be another burden on the school budget.

“The key is the community helping...helping to get us to a better place,” he said.

Spears ended the discussion by pointing out the schools’ educational positives such as dual enrollment classes with the community college and students completing community college before they graduate from Lancaster High. She noted that many Lancaster graduates go on to schools like UVA and William and Mary and return in professional careers such as pharmacists and lawyers.

“There’s a lot of success going on in the midst of our issues,” she said.

The board is scheduled to vote on the budget at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the middle school’s media center. By law, the budget must go to the county board of supervisors by April 1.


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