Since fiscal year 2007, the state’s per pupil expenditure has dropped by $628, from $4,868 per student to $4,240 per student. Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools / Albemarle County

The three candidates hoping to fill the at-large seat on the Albemarle County School Board have opinions about the future of online learning.

Reacting to language in “Efficiency and Effectiveness of K-12 Spending,” a recent study conducted by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the School Board hopefuls addressed a number of the report’s recommendations on using the Internet to deliver instruction.

“I’m concerned when I see online education pushed solely for the sake of ‘efficiency,’” said Dolly Joseph, who has taught in Charlottesville City Schools and at the Peabody School. “I’ve taught, designed and reviewed online education, and it can have a great deal of variability in the quality of the classes and instruction, and it can be difficult to foster social and soft skills in an online environment.”

Catherine Lochner, who works at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Family Involvement, agreed, questioning the tool’s presence in K-12 education.

“Very few students this age are ready for it,” Lochner said. “Online learning itself is not a bad thing, per se; online learning without direction or purpose is.”

Three of the report’s nine recommendations addressed online learning, and chapter six states that “online learning has some potential to improve the efficiency of K-12 education by reducing its cost.”

While Jonno Alcaro, co-owner of Meritage Financial Solutions, said the medium certainly was not “a panacea,” the candidate does think online learning has potential.

“It’s good for students who can’t be in school for one reason or another, and there’s the potential to study things that aren’t available in a students’ school,” Alcaro said.

But curriculum isn’t the only potential benefit, Alcaro said.

“It could also help with some of the scheduling and overcrowding issues our schools are facing,” he said.

This year, 4.2 percent, or 568, Albemarle students are taking an online class.

In addition to online learning, the report confirms the belt-tightening many school districts have decried in recent years.

For example, state per-pupil investments have dropped an average of 7 percent per pupil across the state since 2005. What’s more, the report states, “instructional spending per student declined while many divisions are educating a higher proportion of students with more resource-intensive needs.”

With respect to how districts lowered spending on instruction, the study states school boards employed “fewer teachers per student, [limited] teacher salary growth and [required] teachers to pay a higher percentage of health insurance and retirement benefit costs.”

Lochner and Joseph also criticized three of the report’s recommendations that encourage the state to offer more transportation guidance to school divisions.

“How about the [General Assembly] give the money to the localities earmarked for the purpose of routing efficiency and collecting bid contracts,” Lochner said in response to the suggestion that the state “should assess the feasibility and potential savings of a statewide contract for school bus routing and monitoring software.”

Rebutting the notion that the state should hire new staff to advise school divisions on transportation best practices, Joseph said Albemarle can handle this in-house.

“Our School Board already knows how often school buses should be replaced,” Joseph said. “They certainly don’t need staffers in Richmond to educate them on best practices on this topic; they need some of the budget cuts restored.”

In sum, Alcaro said his main “disappointment” with the report and its conclusions is the emphasis on increased spending for state offices, rather than the school districts.

For example, the recommendations suggest hiring up to six new staff members at the state level to administer support to school divisions about transportation management and facilities maintenance.

“The public schools have always been an integral part of our community and will always prepare our children for achieving their American dream,” he said.