by Ken Boddye, Democratic Candidate for Delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates 51st District (Eastern Prince William County)
After months of debate, open and closed talks, political maneuvering, and arguments over law interpretation, the Prince William School Board voted Wednesday night to accept a funding agreement proposed by the Board of County Supervisors.
The special meeting during which the vote took place in of itself was highly contentious, as the chairman-at-large of the school board did not want to hold the meeting. He and two other members appeared to have left at the end of the normal meeting, but then came back when the special meeting was convened without them.
The agreement stipulates that the Board of County Supervisors will help to fund a pricing difference to increase the size of a high school which is currently being built on the western end of the county; in return, a matching amount of funds will also be appropriated for improvements to schools on the eastern end.
By way of background and context, the School Board is controlled predominantly by Democrats (despite being nonpartisan positions) while the Board of County Supervisors has mostly Republican members. Due to this dynamic, most interactions between the two boards often get painted in a partisan light.
Unfortunately, there is also a shaky history between the two boards when it comes to funding. While there is a funding agreement in place which necessitates a certain % of county tax revenue going to the schools, this creates variable funding for the school board… particularly when the Board of County Supervisors cuts taxes. On the other side, there have been concerns over how the school board is spending said funds; notoriously, a $125,000 piano was purchased for one of the schools in lieu of other, higher-priority, improvements.
By Virginia law, the Board of County Supervisors can only tie or dictate funding be used for a very small list of purposes; all other funds are completely at the will of the School Board to use as they see fit.
Finally, there are some within the county who have created a narrative of division between the eastern end and the western end of the county. Due to the makeup of Prince William, the eastern end of the county is largely more developed in a town/small city sort of way, while the western end is more rural, complete with much larger green spaces and more single-street towns. This diversity makes the county a microcosm of America, but also makes it easier for rhetoric to divide citizens by which part of the county they live in.
All that said, the vote last night was not along party lines as it had been previously. One of the Board Members who has a long history of voting with her fellow Democrats broke from the party — along with a swing voter — to side with the board members who traditionally vote along Republican lines.
This is where the context and setting of this diary ends, and my commentary begins.
I’m a resident of the Occoquan District, which is on the eastern end of the county. It is one of the most culturally and socio-economically diverse parts of the county, as well as having some of the best schools. Occoquan Elementary, for example, recently received a National Title I Distinguished School reward, and is recognized as one of the best Title I elementary schools in the state. Despite all of those factors and accomplishments, classroom overcrowding continues to be a major issue.
To be clear, overcrowding is a county-wide issue, as residential developments and population growth continues to climb at a massive rate without the proper school infrastructure in place to keep pace.
Other issues include: the lack of widespread services and special curriculum for the gifted and those with special needs; little-to-no Head Start or Early Head Start programs; little focus on middle school (almost all talks and solutions are for elementary students and High school students); and land shortages constrained by funding and regulations.
So, funding is something that is sorely needed — both where I live and beyond — and the Board of County Supervisors being willing to fund extra seats and improvements is a boon.
The problem: this agreement sets a dangerous precedent and may start the county down a path where the separation of powers between the school board and the Board of County Supervisors is eroded and blurred. There’s also a political element to much of the showmanship and maneuvering leading up to last night’s vote, which further paints school board decisions in a partisan light, despite being a supposedly non-partisan body.
In short — despite seeming like a debate over free money (which is how it is being billed to the public) there are much deeper, much larger, long-term ramifications of having voted for the agreement in the manner the school board did last night.
On top of that, there was no Citizens Time granted for the Special Meeting. Yes, the normal school board meeting which directly proceeded it included Citizens Time. However, due to the nature and scope of this agreement, it is my belief that dedicated Citizens Time should have been granted. Secondly, this special meeting occurred between 10:30 PM and 12:30 AM Wednesday night, which is not at all an accessible time for most of the public. Even if the school board voted in good faith, having a vote of this size and scope — with over $20 million in taxpayer money on the line — at that time of night has the potential to look like a late-night, backroom deal which the public had no input on.
There’s also the fact that a joint meeting between both boards is scheduled for January 10th. This would have given both bodies a chance to hammer out their differences in a collaborative, more accessible setting; it could also have had dedicated Citizens Time.
So I applaud both boards for agreeing to take a step toward solving the problems facing our school system, but we must be cautious about the road ahead. Last year was fraught with divisive rhetoric and partisan games at all levels of government, and we cannot allow that to become the norm, especially when it comes to education.
Our children deserve the best of our leadership and our willingness to do what’s right despite politics; that’s the only way we can ensure progress in their lives, and in our future.