Despite County Executive Tom Foley’s proposed real estate tax increase of 1.7 cents per $100 of assessed value, the Schools still find themselves $5.8 million short of what the School Board says it needs.
Seven-tenths of a penny of the tax hike would fulfill state stormwater mandates related to improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay, while one cent would generate new revenues in part for the school division.
The most significant factors contributing to the division’s shortfall are a state-mandated $2.3 million increase in Virginia Retirement System contributions, and a School Board and Board of Supervisors-directed $3.2 million for a two percent raise in employee pay and projected $980,000 in health insurance premiums.
Maintaining small class sizes, promoting excellence, and the relationship between strong public schools and the local economy were at the forefront of citizens’ concerns.
Carrie Taylor, a Physics Teacher at Western Albemarle High School, said upping class size averages by 0.5 or 1.0 can be misleading.
“I remember a few years ago, when the School Board was forced to add one child to every classroom. My class went up an average of five students, and I had classes of 27 to 30,” Taylor said. “Do you want our schools to have class sizes similar to those in Northern Virginia?”
Robert Tai, a parent and education professor at the University of Virginia, said when looking at class sizes, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers.
“We start to think about class size as something where you just spread the kids out, and it’s a lot lumpier than that,” Tai said, pointing out that there are fixed amounts of certain classes.
“That means that geometry students, when they’re spread out, have to be put in other geometry classes,” Tai added. “What happens is that the numbers don’t grow by 1 or 0.5, it grows by 5 or 6.”
“It boils down to teachers who are, child by child, building relationships,” Anne Geraty, a teacher at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, said. “That is simply not possible with large class sizes.”
Nathan Hipple, who teaches 4th and 5th grade at Red Hill Elementary, said failing to fully fund the schools could put the division’s innovative programming at risk.
“As an educator in Albemarle, I carry an expectation to teach at the cutting edge of educational trends to maintain that excellence,” Hipple said. “What teachers in other counties are just discovering should be part of the familiar in my classroom.”
Among those innovative programs on the School Board’s list of potential cuts, is about $137,000 for the world languages program at Cale Elementary—a school whose ESOL population is about 30 percent.
Currently, all of Cale’s kindergarten and 1st grade students receive two hours per week of instruction in Spanish.
“We recognized that we were approaching a language cliff, a moment where we needed to have a plan for all learners to excel in language acquisition in order to participate in a global world,” Cale Principal Lisa Jones said. “Our work has transformed how teachers approach literacy instruction.”
Dr. Ben Messinger, a physician and Stony Point Elementary School parent, highlighted the link between high-quality public schools and a thriving local economy.
“We agree with the position of 95 percent who said in the County’s most recent citizen survey that devoting County resources to provide quality education was either very important or essential,” Messinger read from a letter penned by himself and other members of the business community.
“We value too the initiative of our public schools in working more closely with businesses to align curriculum with skills and competencies that allow us to grow employment opportunities,” Messinger added.
But not all who spoke were in favor of the proposed tax increase, or for fully funding the School Board’s funding request.
“Both the school system and County Government can and should make spending cuts,” Robert Hogue said, arguing that neighboring localities envy Albemarle’s pay rates, and that the parents of student athletes should fund the athletics budget, rather than the schools.
But Laura Steenburg, a Meriwether Lewis Elementary School parent, said the schools have been making their sacrifices for years.
“If we look at the numbers, we’re spending significantly less than we did even five years ago,” Steenburg said. “What this shows I think is that the schools have functioned with less funding and it would be hard to claim that they haven’t worked hard to find efficiencies.”
Albemarle School Board member Steve Koleszar said the schools have been forced to find efficiencies for long enough.
“I think we’ve got great leadership and we’re doing great work because we’ve got good leadership, but if we continue to skimp on the resources and cut back on programs, we’re not going to be delivering as good an education to the students,” Koleszar said.