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City Council candidates address per pupil spending

Last week Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress hosted a candidate forum for the five Democrats seeking election to Charlottesville City Council.  Two of the five seats on council will be on ballot this November in the general election.  

These candidates are seeking the two nominations of the Democratic Party which will be decided in the June 11 primary.  They will face two Republican candidates and potentially some independent candidates in November.

The candidates were asked one question about public education in the City of Charlottesville and the rate of per pupil spending.  Highlights from their responses are below.  The full audio is available in the podcast.

Question: Charlottesville’s annual per-pupil spending in FY 2011, at $16,246, ranked sixth overall and third among cities statewide and was more than 50 percent higher than the state average.  Will per-pupil spending go up, down, or stay about the same if you are elected to council?  Why?

Wes Bellamy (D-Charlottesville)

Well currently as you alluded to per pupil spending is around, a little bit over $16,000, and also in the county per pupil spending is nearly $12,000 per student so what we have to think about is how can it be that the county is spending nearly $4,000 less than what we are spending in the city, however to a certain degree the schools are still on par with each other…. So would spending go up or would it stay the same, would it go down? Well that depends on what we choose to do and that would have to be a conversation that we would really have to have with [Superintendent Rosa Atkins] and the city school board…. What I would like to see is for spending to stay on par, however I would also like to see that we be a little more innovative in the way in which we spend…also one of my key points, is spending some of that money in our 3 year old 4 year old and our 5 year old programs, but I would also like to see us spend some more money for additional resources to support our schools and that can be a collaborative effort between our city schools and some of the local service providers.

Bob Fenwick (D-Charlottesville)

Well in a way that’s a very easy answer, there’s a very easy answer to that question. I have never seen a government spending program go down, so it’s going to go up one way or the other. We have an elected school board. The seven people on that school board are some of the most competent people that I’ve seen on a school board in my time in Charlottesville…. They are very, very concerned about the budgetary restraints that everybody is facing. Federal money is down, state money is certainly down, and city money might remain the same, but the school board has been trying very hard in the last three, four, five years to cut the school budget. …That’s where I would look first of all, to the school board. …The bottom line is, the kids are being educated, and they’re happy where they are, and…people still want to come here from countries like India, Pakistan, from Europe, that have good teaching facilities and smart people. … And that’s a credit to our public school system.

Melvin Grady (D-Charlottesville)

The dollars being spent for each pupil does not equate to results.  That’s why my number one [priority] is pre-k education. I’m teaching 8th graders at Buford middle school, and we’re about to get a nice STEM lab, science technology engineering and mathematics… The students that I teach will have a hard time dealing with those concepts, the new technology; they don’t have the background knowledge. The money spent per pupil does not equate to results that’s a fact I see it everyday in the classroom, so pushing money into the situation does not work that way. The money should be better spent in the early grades, I mean early pre-k, 3-5 year programs. I keep going over that, because its proven… Some students that I teach didn’t get that so they are constantly behind… but if you don’t get a pre-k education program, numbers increase immediately it’ll be the same results. I would like to see even less money spent per pupil and better quality education in the system.

Adam Lees (D-Charlottesville)

To answer directly, I can’t tell. Because the future is, I know that’s trite to say, but the future is unknown.  We could face another catastrophic loss of state support where the city has to then pump in its own money, so our per capita spending would increase.…The reason per pupil spending doesn’t really measure success is because it’s just spending divided by the number of students. If you spend that money all on putting in new recycling bins or on upping administrative salaries, that’s not going into the classroom, it’s not going to help the students…. So as far as education spending, whether it goes up or whether it goes down, if it’s going into the classroom to provide a safe atmosphere, a tolerant atmosphere, if it’s going towards the kind of training and supplemental education that they need to keep on track, or it’s testing innovative new teaching methods, it’s getting books for the students, or it’s providing for meals so those students can eat and not have to worry about their stomachs during class, even if it’s for an hour so they can take a nap…those are the kinds of things we need to focus our spending on. If spending stays the same, but it’s focusing more on that, that’s all I care about, I don’t care about that nice statistic.

Kristin Szakos (D-Charlottesville, Incumbent)

I think the question of whether it will go up or down is a slight unknown. I think it’s important to remember why per pupil spending is high in Charlottesville. Charlottesville values neighborhood schools. We have six elementary schools. We need a principal in each one. We need all of that infrastructure in each one, and that’s one of the main drivers of the expense in our schools. …Another reason we have high expenditures per pupil is that…fifty percent of our kids come from low-income families. And while a lot of them are doing very well in school, [they need] extra services in school, and those services cost money. …Over the last five years, state funding to our city schools has been cut by thirty percent. [But] we value education in this community. We are in the community of Thomas Jefferson, who kind of thought up the idea of public education. It seems to me appropriate that this would be a place where we put our money where our mouth is. I don’t think we want to have average schools. …And if that happens to cost a little more, I think that most people in this community are willing to do that.