SCPS supporting formation of coalition

The Shenandoah County Public Schools system is supporting the formation of a coalition of school districts that will serve as an advocacy group for stressed school divisions.

The School Board Thursday night voted unanimously to approve supporting the formation of the “Small and Rural Schools Coalition.” Superintendent Mark Johnston has offered to represent District 4, covering areas including Fairfax, Alexandria, Prince William and Rappahannock counties.

“It is helpful to speak about and advocate for our students on issues of common importance and challenge when our voice is larger and more inclusive,” Johnston said afterwards.

Last year, while preparing budgets for the current FY18 fiscal year (school year 2017-18), a number of Virginia public school divisions, largely in the rural and mountainous southwest area of the state, came together to form the “Coalfields Coalition” to confront issues arising from Virginia’s traditional funding procedures.

These divisions were rural, had declining enrollment, had high rates of unemployment and resulting poverty, and were reliant on higher percentages of state funding for their local budgets than more affluent areas. Rural schools have had funding per pupil decrease an average of 11.3 percent. Schools in more affluent areas have had funding per pupil increase 4.7 percent.

The result of the group’s advocacy was additional funding passed by the Virginia legislature and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The group hopes to expand as 80 of the 132 Virginia public school divisions who are now considering joining the group are renamed the “Small and Rural Schools Coalition”.

While not every district is identical, generally characteristics of the small and rural divisions include, but are not limited to the following:

  • High rates of poverty with the percentage of students qualifying for free and/or reduced price lunch at 50m percent  or higher;
  • Declining enrollments (Shenandoah County schools goes against this trend, seeing an enrollment increase this year of five percent.)
  • Higher percentages of state funding for local operational budgets and declining state funding;
  • Over reliance on local property taxes to fund the local share of operational budgets; and
  • High rates of teacher turnover.

School board members heard from two people voicing opinions on the fiscal year 2019 school budget.

Jeff Rudy, President of the Shenandoah County Educational Association and cross country coach in the district, called for a raise for teachers and staff. He said it had been a decade since employees received a “true raise”.

“I know it may appear too soon in these early stages of the upcoming budget discussion to ask for raises for teachers, instructional aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians. But, it is not. These are desperate times in the classroom and in the bus garages and in the school kitchens and in the utility closets. It is now that we need to speak-up for not only SCEA members, but for all the employees of Shenandoah County Public Schools,” Rudy said.

A teacher of 15 years can work in Stephens City and make about $5,000 more, drive south to work in Harrisonburg and make about $3,000 more a year or work in Manassas and make about $15,000 more, he said citing a salary study from the Virginia Education Association.

Eugenia Kemble, Chair of the Education Committee of the Shenandoah County Democrats, asked school officials to keep preschool education in mind while preparing the budget.

“I have studied education my entire life. The effectiveness of focusing on preschool is well documented,” Kemble said citing several studies.

Kemble also felt that salaries need to increase, pointing out Shenandoah County dramatically falls behind other school systems in retirement salaries for its former employees.