In advance of Election Day on Nov. 3, Charlottesville Tomorrow will once again mail out in-depth nonpartisan voter guides, featuring exclusive one-on-one interviews with all 25 candidates for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, Charlottesville City Council and both local school boards. In the days before the election, we will also feature their responses to several important questions about key quality of life issues so that you can compare candidates’ answers and make an informed choice.
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s 2015 Election Center website features links to the full written transcript and audio of candidate interviews, copies of our 2015 voter guide, information on where to vote, and more. All the following passages are excerpts from our interviews.
ALBEMARLE SCHOOL BOARD, THIRD IN A SERIES
Name one specific area of the school budget that you are concerned about and tell us why.
Actually, the easy answer to that is expenses, and that comes from 33 years of budgeting experience. But as I mentioned to you before we started to speak is that after this interview, I’m on my way over to pick up a paper copy of the budget from the Superintendent’s office, and I will be much better informed of that after I’ve had an opportunity to go through that and really grind down. You always want to look at expenses, but the other side that is of concern to me is the revenue side, because I know that we’re still operating at $600 less per student than we were in 2008. So everyone made the cuts during the recession, but they weren’t given back. I’d love to see the state open the coffers a little bit. I’d love to see some monies coming in from companies who are moving in here, want to move in here or are already here, in order to support projects that we would want to do.
I think one area that I’m super concerned about, and my sense as I go around and talk to people on the School Board is that we’ve been sort of coasting on our good reputation, and sort of stretching our money and being really creative with our money. I have been to 13 schools so far, two of which are not over capacity. The other 11 are either at or over capacity. So everyone is talking about needing more space, everyone has talked about having a certain amount of personnel assigned to their schools, and then how do they make that happen with class size and coverage and room for planning. So it seems that there is a need there.
I have also lived in this community my entire life, so I’ve seen how real estate taxes, which fund a large portion of our budget, I don’t really want them to go up. I value both things. I value our county being a livable place, and I also value our schools because I get this feeling that somehow people think that that is separate from our community. The students and the school’s are our community, students in the twelfth grade do not magically disappear. They graduate, then they become voting citizens, one hopes, they become employees and hopefully employers. So there’s this disconnect of like somehow the schools are not my problem if I don’t have kids in them. But they’re your neighbors and the person who is waiting on you who you are really irritated at.
You know, the budget is very well thought out as you look through it. You see that it’s very well thought out, you see that there are formulas, it’s not just ‘I really like this principal so let’s just give her all of the resources,’ it’s definitely already calculated. And the state has definitely cut back on its funding, so I think we need to look to advocating for our schools when we go out and vote, when we are writing to our representatives and say ‘This is something that we value.’ Because what else are we going to do?
I would have to say that last year I believe it was we decided as a county to discontinue the safe schools, healthy students program. I am extremely concerned the increase in behaviors are not getting appropriate attention. There is that window or that opportunity for kids to start being seen as problems instead of showing them appropriate behaviors and modeling those. I don’t think that we’ve ever had really well developed and what I call, PBIS, I love those acronyms, so Positive Behavior Intervention Supports. Across the 26 schools, we have 26 different ways in order to try these interventions. I don’t see them working honestly. I see a lot of students that are still struggling and part of that positive behavioral intervention involves getting the parents to be engaged. It can’t just be one-sided. And honestly, I don’t just see the outreach to the families right now without programs. So that’s a concern. That would be my one specific concern.
Jason Buyaki * Incumbent
Well I don’t know if I can even boil it down to one Brian. There’s many areas that I am always concerned about. It’s been one of my things since I’ve been on the school board to always take a look at the line item budget. Years ago when I first did that we were allocating money in specific categories and then not spending it and spending it in different categories. So I spoke about that with my colleagues and members of central office and I said we need to put the money where we are going to spend it, that’s just truth in advertising. So over time there has been a shift, and the money is now for the most part being distributed to the correct categories.
But I think one of the areas I am most concerned about on the school budget is professional development. That has always been short-changed quite a bit every year and we always come back and we never put as much money in that area as we wish. That’s important because professional development gives teachers new skills, new ways of teaching content and I’ve got some new things lined up that I’ve heard from some principals about different ways of approaching professional development that doesn’t necessarily send our staff out of town to conferences. So I am kind of keen on seeing how that develops this fall because that can really be a game changer for professional development and allow us to integrate our services a little better and maximize the use of our taxpayer money.
Samuel Miller District
This is interesting, let me name two. Building maintenance because I spoke with a gentleman who works in building maintenance and he told me there is a lot of waste and abuse of taxpayer money in that department. Good management means that they are going to be on top of waste and abuse and have it stopped. Another part of good management is finding cost savings. One of the first things that we want to do in the budget is find the cost savings that are available to us all across the board in our administration. I know one place that we really can’t cut and that is teacher time with the students, and the amount of time that it takes to teach students and give them the opportunity to practice the skills that we want them to learn. Now I knew that as a flight instructor, it takes a certain amount of time to teach certain aspects. But when it comes to building maintenance, administrative tasks, and so many other parts of an organization there’s places we can find lots of savings, so let’s find them. That’s job number one with our budget and we can look at building maintenance.
Another thing that I want to look at is all expense accounts. When folks are out spending taxpayer money, taxpayers should be able to see what is being purchased. As a part of transparency let’s put those budgets online where our citizens can view the expenses, what’s being bought and paid for, and that way not only will it provide transparency and accountability it will also give people in the community opportunities to see a place that we could save more. Maybe they have a better way of purchasing something, a cheaper means of acquiring a service or equipment, and then the community can actually bring that forward and further save money for the county.
The main area are the funds that would be available for modernization and renovation of some of the schools, and sometimes that has been dropped down lower on the scale because of the needs of other areas of the county, like fire services and police. So even though those two areas really provide us with some really important things we need within the county, sometimes renovation and modernization have not occurred in some of the schools that really needed it because of funds being diverted to other areas. So that would be probably the main area that would be my concern.
I think I’ll answer this by saying all of the above, because I know that the Albemarle County School Board has faced a lot of significant budget challenges for the last seven years, going back to 2008, since the budgets have seriously declined. I’ve looked at the budgets going back to 2006, and if you adjust the budgets for inflation, the budgets have basically flat lined over the last eight or nine years, while student enrollment has increased by about 800 students. That presents significant challenges for the administration and the school board to try and manage that increase in students with the same amount of money effectively. So I think that every part of the budget would have to be scrutinized to ensure that the programs we have in place have a direct effect on academic performance.
Steve Koleszar * Incumbent
Two things. One is enrollment growth. We had a meeting last night and preliminarily we’re saying it looks like we’re going to have 181 more students than we projected. Okay. We’re already projecting a growth of about 150 students so growth puts tremendous strain on our budget. It’s almost directly proportional. The more kids you have, the more costs you have.
A secondary area that I’m really concerned about is aging facilities. A lot of our buildings were built 30 years ago and they’re starting to show their age. I was down at Walton [Middle School] today talking to people and I was talking to a science teacher and she’s in a classroom without natural light. She has old science tables that are starting to fall apart. And not enough outlets. So, updating our aging facilities is one of the challenges but growth is a direct challenge. Last year our number one priority was modernization, enhancing, repairing and upkeeping our facilities. I’m afraid this year our number year priority in the capital improvement program is going to have to be more seats at Woodbrook [Elementary] because of the jump up in enrollment.
White Hall District
Well my top priority was capital improvements, and recently I was appointed to the Long Range Planning Advisory Committee, and I haven’t been on the Committee for very long, but it did open my eyes to the fact that I do think that if we do anything long-term extensive in terms of the budget, we really do need to look at our capital improvements money, and we need to look at the other problem, which is redistricting. And both of those have come up here lately. From time to time we redistrict our students. We pull them here to go there, and so on. So the urban ring of schools is overcrowded, so we need to spend some time looking at how we could improve that, and that would solve two problems. We would perhaps solve the redistricting problem, which really is short-term problem. If we could spend the money we have in the capital improvements to make the schools larger and better and modernized. Or perhaps like a school where I live, Broadus-Wood [Elementary], I don’t think it’s as populated anymore. And I know they’re talking about busing students out there, but we really need to look at that as compared to a capital improvement at a school closer to where they’re located. So capital improvements, that’s my deal.
I think we had this tendency in 2009 to cut. Our expenses per pupil have gone down, and I know the public doesn’t know that, and I know it doesn’t seem like that because our local taxes keep going up. There’s a gut reaction, a visceral reaction, which I understand, which is ‘Wait a minute, we’re spending more and more on education, how come the school system keeps saying that we need more money.’
But the reality is that state and federal funding keeps going down, and it’s going down faster than the local expenses are going up. And so we need to make sure that the state and the federal government are meeting the mandates that they put forth. They have all these mandates that they say they’ll pay for, and then they don’t pay for them. The political touch word is ‘unfunded mandates,’ but the reality is that it’s true. We have a lot of things that we’re required to do—paperwork, technology work—that the state is imposing upon us to do, but they’re not paying for them. So we’re taking money from our classrooms, we’re taking money from our educators and students, and we’re putting forth pet projects of bureaucrats in Richmond and Washington, DC, and we’re not making up for that funding anywhere else.
I want to make sure that our per pupil spending is where it needs to be, and quite frankly I don’t think it is. And I want the money that we’re spending to actually go towards education and not towards things that our community doesn’t want. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to say ‘Look, the state government wants us to do this, but they’re not paying for it, so we’re not going to do that thing. We’re going to take this $50,000 that the state says we have to pay over here, and we’re going to use it the way we need to use it: for pre-K, for world languages, to make sure that our schools are competitive.’ It takes courage to do that, but I like to think that I’m willing to take the heat. And I’d like to put pressure on our local delegates, our local senator to say ‘Look, you need to provide the funding that is guaranteed by our constitution. The Virginia Constitution says ‘a great public school for every student.’’ We need to hold them to that, because right now they’re not pulling their weight, and what that does, is that simply puts more pressure on the homeowners in Albemarle County, and that’s a mistake.