Candidates’ school numbers questioned

Shenandoah County Public Schools supporters are questioning some spending data publicized by a few candidates running for local offices.

Barbara C. Bliss, Michael Wakeman and Richard Walker jointly issued a publication – The Independents – as part of their campaigns recently. Bliss is running for the District 2 seat on the School Board. Wakeman and Walker are seeking the District 2 and 3 seats on the Board of Supervisors, respectively. All three are vocal critics of school spending that has led to tax increases.

The publication included data about per pupil spending by the division – figures the candidates say shows the county spends too much on students. The publication also cites a study conducted by students at James Madison University titled Cool Schools that shows per pupil spending and other data.

But some supporters of the school system claim that the candidates are using inaccurate information in the publication, specifically data purporting to show how much the division spends to educate each student. The Independents publication states that Shenandoah County spends $10,500 per pupil. The chart in the candidates’ publication includes a footnote that states the per pupil amount “is believed to be based on the 2016 requested budget amount, not what was granted” and adds that such number would be $300 less per pupil.

Walker said Thursday that he used data provided recently by Superintendent Jeremy Raley indicating 6,000 pupils and an operational budget of $61.28 million. Dividing the budget by number of students equals $10,200, Walker noted. The publication states that some school supporters claim the division is inferior to those in other jurisdictions because the county spends too little on education based on the per pupil figure.

The publication shows that Shenandoah County ranks highest in the region for per pupil spending given the numbers shown. Walker said he’s seen population numbers range from the 5,900s to slightly more than 6,100. Walker questioned a population figure of 6,200 cited by the Shenandoah County Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools. Using this figure results in the county having one of the lowest per pupil spending rates in the region.

“I’m not saying that anything is overfunded or underfunded,” Walker said. “I’m just saying ‘let’s look at what the real numbers are.'”

But J. Daniel Walsh, who co-founded PASS with his wife Cyndy Walsh, a candidate for the District 3 School Board seat, disputes Walker’s numbers. J. Daniel Walsh criticized the Cool Schools study for indicating the county has seven schools instead of 10 and for naming four facilities Central High School.

“Well there’s only one authoritative set of numbers and those are the ones in the superintendent’s report from (the Virginia Department of Education),” J. Daniel Walsh said. “Those are the only numbers we use. … They went cherrypicking facts and picked some that are very obviously wrong.”

The division’s current operational budget is $61.28 million and the average daily membership for students in kindergarten through 12th grade as of Sept. 30 was 5,938, Raley said Thursday.

Per-pupil spending should not be calculated simply by dividing the division’s operational budget by the number of students or average daily membership, Raley said. In fact, the state Department of Education uses several variables when it calculates per-pupil spending.

The Superintendent’s Annual Report for Virginia, provided by the Department of Education and the document Raley references, lists spending and student population data for all school divisions. The latest report for fiscal 2014 shows Shenandoah County Public Schools spent $9,561 per pupil. The data uses an average daily membership of 6,205 and operational spending of $59.33 million.

“It’s not always clearly defined by taking dollars divided kids,” Raley said. “The state doesn’t always count all those expenses.”

Raley noted that the superintendent’s report has been vetted by the state agency and provides an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

The Board of Supervisors adopted a fiscal 2016 budget that did not cover the School Board’s entire funding request. Supervisors also chose to fund part of the School Board’s funding request with savings rather than raise the real estate rate for a third time in three years. Typically the School Board requests an increase in local funding over what it receives and then supervisors decide whether or not to fund the increase and, if so, by how much.

Bliss is vying for the School Board seat held by R.L. “Rick” Koontz Jr. Joanie Hovatter also is running for the District 2 School Board seat. Wakeman is challenging Supervisor Steven Baker and Walker is challenging Supervisor David Ferguson.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

A previous version of this story should have stated that Richard Walker is challenging Supervisor David Ferguson.