by Marc Broklawski, cross-posted from Medium
This weekend, I obtained some audio of a July 29, 2020 joint working session between the Stafford County School Board and the Stafford County Board of Supervisors. This was their first 3×3, which included School Board Members Pam Yeung (Garrisonville), Dr. Sarah Chase (Falmouth) and Susan Randall (George Washington) and Stafford Supervisors Crystal Vanuch (Rock Hill), Meg Bohmke (Falmouth) and Cindy Shelton (Aquia). Also attending was Stafford County School Superintendent Dr. Scott Kizner.
This meeting was meant to foster a better working relationship between boards, but it got off to an explosive start almost immediately.
Amidst a health crisis due to a global pandemic, forcing Stafford Schools to start virtually, Vanuch immediately wondered aloud why school staff shouldn’t be laid off and tax dollars returned to her constituents, “Now that the schools are virtual does that mean that half the staff is going to be laid off and will we have half of our money back of personal property or real estate taxes?”
The wondering aloud quickly turned into accusations of school staff not working by Vanuch and Bohmke. Vanuch suggested, “You have paras, right, that haven’t been working since March because they’re not teachers, so I can’t imagine them doing much work.”
Kizner said that paraprofessionls have been working and they are very much needed by the school district. Bohmke and Vanuch, still not convinced, suggested that we should be using these professionals to provide childcare. I kid you not. Kizner immediately pointed out that, “there’s actually some restrictions in the state code of using your staff for childcare purposes.”
Bohmke jumped in immediately and said, “Well maybe they need to change that, we’re in the middle of a pandemic.” Why would Bohmke and Vanuch think it’s safe for school staff to provide childcare?
If Bohmke and Vanuch were really concerned about childcare, that would have been evident in how they appropriated $13.3 million in CARES Act funding they received that could be used for necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID-19.
Instead, they bailed out businesses to the tune of $2 million, including $600 thousand for hotels. Where’s the bail out for working parents in the county? Schools aren’t childcare centers.
Despite over 90,000 cases, 2,200 deaths and countless adults and children with unknown long-term health consequences, inadequate testing, significant school health safety needs, Vanuch believes it’s worthwhile experimenting with children and school staff by throwing them back into school.
Vanuch, relying on parents she goes to the gym with, said she worried about high school kids being left home alone, because “their parents are going to be working.” She said these kids would be “inviting friends over and drug and alcohol abuse are going to skyrocket because these kids are depressed.” Her fellow gym goers tell her that “their seniors just don’t want to live because they can’t do all their senior things.”
They aren’t going to be able to do their “senior things” anyway. She’s worried about these kids not doing their “senior things,” how about surviving their senior year without long-term health consequences?
Randall pointed out that drug and alcohol was a major problem even before the pandemic. She’s absolutely correct. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 2015 and 2017 those statistics were on the rise. In 2017, 51 percent of children ages 12 or older admit using alcohol and 11.20 percent admit using illicit drugs in the past month. This isn’t a new problem. What has Vanuch done to fight this as Supervisor? Her source for her claims are her fellow gym goers?
Don’t get me wrong, alcohol and substance abuse among our youth are real. The government is not doing nearly enough and needs to do more. This is a serious problem, but not a new one.
If Vanuch is so worried about the social emotional needs of our children and believes that our school system should be open, or at least become childcares, why hasn’t she voted to open up Stafford’s summer camps or our public pools? It’s safe, right? Hypocrite, anyone?
Vanuch and Bohmke could have also provided more CARES Act funds for more social workers and counselors for our schools. But, no, COVID-19 necessitated spending $75k to purchase 22 card readers to enhance Government Center security; $65k for a website redesign; and, $25k for gas masks for the Sheriff’s Department to use when gassing peaceful protestors — like was done near the Falmouth Bridge.
It’s clear that their priorities are not with working families, our school staff or students. This meeting was just an ambush to try to score cheap political points, at the expense of our schools.
Now back to paraprofessionals and childcare. Despite Kizner saying that paraprofessionals were, indeed, working. Vanuch was still in disbelief — still believing he was misleading her, “I’m having a really hard time telling my constituents why people should be paid that aren’t working; and, we know that we can’t put them back to work for quite some time. That funding could then go to childcare purposes.”
For the one hundredth time, schools are not childcares. If Vanuch and Bohmke wanted to fund childcare and help out working parents in the county, they could have allocated CARES Act funds for those priorities. This was never a priority for them or the Board of Supervisors.
I’ve seen Bohmke working out around the YMCA a lot. Why not form a public-private partnership with them and provided help to our frontline, essential workers that have no option to work remotely and/or provide childcare subsidies to working parents out of the CARES Acts funds that would allow parents to decide the best type of childcare that would suit their family? Nah, bailing out businesses are more important.
Kizner went on to explain that “most of the paras are assigned to children with disabilities” and they are absolutely needed. They have them at the elementary level — kindergarten and first grade. They can “co-teach children,” since the virtual/hybrid plan calls for more synchronous teaching. If they have classes of say 20, they can split them up into two groups. Paras can pull out four or five into “a little reading group that they are doing now.” They will be working, and he doesn’t “see any examples of them not working.”
Of course, Vanuch and Bohmke remained “not convinced.” At this point, I’m not even sure I’d be able to convince them that the sky is blue.
On July 28, 2020, Governor Ralph Northam announced a second round of CARES Act funds would be distributed to localities. The Stafford County Board of Supervisors would be receiving an additional $13.3 million — bringing the total to approximately $26.6 million.
To date, the Board of Supervisors has only allocated $990 thousand , barely 7 percent of total CARES Act funds, out of the first round of funding to Stafford County Schools, which helped pay for thermometers, gloves, masks, desks, face shields, transportation cost for meals and to improve Internet services to expand online learning capabilities. They “loaned” the School Board $1.1 million for the purchase of Chromebooks with a potential claw back of those funds when they receive $1.5 million in ESSER funds. More on this topic here.
Kizner laid out priorities that the School System needs for funding for both the hybrid and virtual instruction models. This includes safety improvements. He highlighted that one of the main objectives of the CARES Act funds was to, “try to get children in school and keep the schools operating.”
I talk about how it’s determined how much each School District gets in ESSER funds and what they are here. The formula is based on the wealth of a county. Stafford County is the 17th richest county in America, so it’s expected that Stafford County provide more local funding to our schools. Vanuch and Bohmke railed against the formula. This is generally how we receive regular state funding for our schools, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. The only surprise is why the Board of Supervisors haven’t prioritized our schools now or previously.
In the past, Stafford County provided greater than 60 percent of revenues to our school system. That local contribution has dipped over the past two decades to around 50 percent. Again, priorities. The Stafford County Board of Supervisors have simply been unwilling to adequately fund our schools.
It’s not like we can’t afford it. The median household income of Stafford County is $108,421. Stafford’s student enrollment of 28,793 is the 8th largest school district in Virginia. The Stafford County Board of Supervisor’s per pupil local contribution of $4,290 is 35.4 percent below the state average of $6,642. The total per pupil expenditure (federal, state and local) ranks 123 out of 132 districts — almost at the bottom. Yup, priorities.
Kizner highlighted that Spotsylvania received twice as much in ESSER funds “because regardless of what we tell the public the way the formula is we are seen as a very wealthy county. So Spotsy, which has 5,000 less kids than us, receives almost twice as much in their money.”
Kizner acknowledged the challenges we are facing in this pandemic and how it has only further highlighted years of underfunding of our schools, “We have things on our list that concern me greatly. Our head of our building and grounds also mention it about ventilation, chillers, our units…these are just the results of years of having things on our list that haven’t been funded.”
Part of our ability in getting our children and school staff back to school is creating as safe as an environment as possible. More and more research has come out and confirmed that COVID-19 is airborne and can travel. To mitigate this, we need serious upgrades to our ventilation systems within our schools. We needed this even before, but COVID-19 presents even more challenges.
I have to come back again to the priorities of our Board of Supervisors. Do they want our children to eventually be able to return to school? If so, funding ventilation improvements out of this new round of CARES Act funds is essential. They could have done it in the last round, but decided that adding Biopolar Ionization for HVAC Systems within Parks and Recreation was more important. Oh, the cost to upgrade these HVAC systems was $450 thousand!
I hope everyone is enjoying those wonderful Stafford County summer camps, while we wonder when our schools could reopen for in-person learning. Oh, wait. Priorities!
Kizner also made a strong case for the need for additional teachers. The virtual and hybrid instructional models both require increased staffing, especially with federal requirements for health accommodations. With a surge of parents opting for virtual in the last five to seven days of the previous parent survey, it’s likely that we would have gone from 30 to 35 percent to 65 percent based on the rate of parents either changing or selecting the virtual model for their child, according to Kizner.
One example is if you have a physics teacher approved to work at home, virtually, due to federal requirements for health considerations. When it’s safe to implement the hybrid model, we will still have students learning virtually; and, likely require a physics teacher to be present in the classroom to teach under the hybrid model.
Complicating matters is the current national teacher shortage. It’s real, large, growing and worse than many people realize. We need funding now to hire additional teachers, not when it’s time to implement the hybrid schedule.
Kizner pointed out the need right now to hire additional teachers and what other districts are doing. He cited a recent example with his own daughter, “I can share with you absolutely that in Prince William County, although my daughter chose to go to Chesterfield, just last week out of the blue they called her up and offered her a job. She applied back in May. And she asked the question. Thank you. They didn’t even interview her. They said are you still looking for a job. And she said yes that was the interview. Ok. And my point being is, they’re doing what I just said. They’re looking to hire more staff because you can’t take teachers, in some cases you can, but not in all cases where teachers will be assigned children virtually and children hybrid.”
Kizner appealed to Vanuch, Bohmke and Shelton, “I just feel like when we make the request. We all could probably find things that, what we all could probably find reasons why not to do it. I’m not saying anybody’s thinking that. But at the end, if your constituents are saying I want our kids back in school. We agree. But we also need to make sure their kids are being safe and that the kids have an adult that’s qualified for the area in which the student needs them to be.”
Chase also appealed to the Board of Supervisors that it isn’t only about health and safety precautions and staffing, but we still need more funding for technology to improve the virtual, instructional experience, “in order to do a good job virtually, there’s probably going to be some technology that needs to be purchased.” She highlighted the need for additional tools that would allow teachers to write, using a pencil, on digital whiteboards. It’s unclear if all the Chromebooks have touch screens. Randall seemed to indicate that many teachers have bought their own laptops with touch screens. Clearly, there is a need for additional hardware.
Vanuch dismissed the need saying, “I think there’s an app you can download to like draw things on those.” Is there an app for Supervisors to have commonsense?
Chase defended Stafford educators saying, “some teachers may have money that they buy it for themselves. They’re going to be some teachers who don’t.” She also said there are probably many expenses that just can’t be anticipated. Randall said teachers may not even know “the things that would make their world easier to the virtual.” She continued that by saying we won’t really know what we don’t know until our students and teachers get experience with the new learning models. We clearly need a technology contingency reserve fund for unknown expenses. This is new and there are certainly unknowns and risks moving forward.
Pandemics are not for penny pinching, but that’s precisely what’s on Vanuch’s mind, “What I would ask of the school board, is if you’re looking at the holistic budget, and you know that the teachers are going to need additional technology and additional things. Should no COVID aid come, ok, virtually, now I’m not saying that we’re not giving you, I’m just saying look at this. What cuts do you have to make on some areas?”
The whole point of the CARES Act funds is to help support vital services like schools continue to serve our communities. It’s not a windfall to fund pet projects and business buddies.
I think Bohmke summed things up well, “There’s going to be winners and losers. While there are winners and losers right now. There are going to be more winners and losers. And, yeah, different winners and losers.”
The Board of Supervisors has already picked the winners and losers through the first round of appropriating CARES Act funds. The losers right now are working families, students and school staff. Let’s make sure they prioritize these folks in the second round of CARES Act funds and in future budgets.
If we believe that strong families and schools are the bedrock foundation of the economy, then it’s high time we start investing in them.