Stafford School Board works through questions, answers

by | Mar 8, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Stafford

After its scheduled joint session with the board of supervisors was abruptly canceled, the Stafford County School Board met Thursday evening to address a list of questions it had received from the board of supervisors, as well as to review maintenance needs and upcoming capital projects. The board is working to have a final Fiscal Year 2025 budget ready by April 23, subject to final allocations from the county and state budgets.

Deputy Superintendent and Chief Operating Officer Chris Fulmer walked the board through a list of questions received from the supervisors, beginning with a comparison of school employees’ health insurance to that of county employees. Despite being on similar plans, said Fulmer, the school system would take nearly $4.5 million to meet the county’s premiums.

“The county started offering paid maternity and paternity leave, that is not something we currently offer,” he said. “It is in our five-year plan, but we have not implemented it yet. That would be an estimated cost of $585 [per employee per year] to offer that.”

Another question raised by supervisors was the number of school employees who make more than $100,000. “You know, $100,000 isn’t quite what it used to be several years ago, especially with inflation over the years,” Fulmer said.

The school district currently has 244 employees who make over $100,000, a number that accounts for 5% of the county’s total contracted workforce, Fulmer said. Those employees have an average of 27 years of experience.

The comparison to Prince William County Schools showed that Stafford’s pay scale was still well behind its northern neighbor. “You could be an experienced bookkeeper in Prince William and earn more than the top-paid teachers in Stafford,” Superintendent Dr. Thomas Taylor said.

The board then considered questions about vacancies and new school positions. “We hired 276 teachers,” Fulmer said. “But we started the school year with just under 100 licensed vacancies for social workers and psychologists, but for actual classroom teachers, there were 75 (vacancies).”

Fulmer explained that a teaching vacancy does not equate to a $85,000 compensation savings because those classes would have to be divided and covered by two other teachers. “It almost completely eliminates the salary lapse,” he added.

Taylor said the “good news” is that every classroom is currently covered. The bad news is that many of those classes are being covered by long-term substitutes, teachers splitting sections, or provisional teachers.

“We managed to drive classroom coverage down to single digits, but only through some creative problem-solving,” he said.

The meeting progressed to board members raising their questions for the board of supervisors, including the per pupil transfer, the use of the five-year plan created in 2021 for funding decisions, budget goals, and how the county proposes funding replacements and repairs for vehicles and facilities.

Taylor recalled a board member suggesting that they learn the board of supervisors’ “love language.”

“It would help us to get some clarity on what they (the supervisors) find helpful and what pieces of information they feel like they need more information on,” he said.

Taylor added that there’s an “inequity in how schools are treated in relation to other agencies within county government, there is some value in comparing our vehicles to county vehicles, and pay increases for the amount of work that is done. It is inequitable. Schools are an afterthought in this county, not a forethought.”

“We might be better served in budget negotiations by explaining what our needs are, what our buses look like, what our vehicles look like, what our replacement schedule does look like and should look like,” added Dr. Elizabeth Warner, the representative for the Griffis-Widewater District. “Buses aren’t the same as ambulances and fire trucks. We have to add buses to our fleet because we have to accommodate growth needs. They don’t have to add a fire truck for every 700 students. We have to add ten buses.”

The board appeared ready to find a way to overcome its recently adversarial relationship with the board of supervisors. After discussing the letter sent by the county administrator to the superintendent on behalf of the supervisors to reconsider the site of Elementary School 19, many of the board members said they felt like their responses had been heard.

“I really liked what Ms. Guy had to say on Tuesday night,” Susan Randall (George Washington District) said. “She said, ‘Let’s just have a conversation.’ I think, the letter-writing, I don’t feel is necessary. The conversation is much more valuable.”

Rock Hill District representative Patricia Healy agreed that the supervisors knew where the school board currently stands. “And I hope they would give us credit for reconsidering… We are moving forward.”

“I feel like we are looking to turn this new leaf over,” said Alyssa Halstead, Hartwood district representative. “I think we are hoping to have a new transparent relationship on both sides.”

Aquia District Supervisor Monica Gary was in the audience showing her support for the school board.

“I decided to come because I am a concerned parent,” Gary said. “My children are in Stafford elementary, middle and high schools.

“There’s a lot of contention between our boards, but I’m here as a parent listening in, wondering what’s going to happen next. Our schools have been chronically underfunded for a decade and it’s time for us to take care of our children.”

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