By: Michael Campbell, News Editor
DINWIDDIE – While the audience for Tuesday’s public hearing on the proposed 2018 fiscal year county budget was relatively small, one person in attendance asked supervisors and the county to look further into the future when it comes to funding for the county’s public schools.
District Three School Board representative Barbara Pittman was one of the only people to speak specifically to the presented budget and capital improvement plan Tuesday night, using her time at the podium to praise where Dinwiddie Public Schools is in terms of performance and student success while acknowledging that there is always an opportunity to get better.
“We have a good school system here in Dinwiddie, but unless we look at funding long term, we will miss that opportunity to become a better school division or a great school division,” she said.
Earlier this year, The Dinwiddie School Board outlined their request for local funding from the county, asking for approximately $15.2 million in funding for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1.
That $15.2 million represents a $1.1 million increase over what the school division was appropriated during the current fiscal year as the school division joins a number of others around the commonwealth who are facing increased costs, particularly related to rising retirement fund contribution rates.
Echoing some points made by County Administrator Kevin Massengill, who told supervisors during Tuesday’s public hearing that, in the face of flat revenue, there were few new initiatives inside the county’s proposed budget, Pittman said the same conversations are being had by the county school board and school division’s leadership.
“Just like Kevin was talking about, we’re stuck without new initiatives, as well,” she said. “Every time we add something, we have to look at what we have to take out.”
The school board member discussed Dinwiddie Schools’ efforts to send students to various regional high schools in the area, specifically Petersburg-based Appomattox Regional Governor’s School and new technology-oriented, Richmond-based school CodeRVA. For the school board, Pittman said they had to cut back their allotment of slots to ARGS in order to provide a pair of slots for two high school students to attend Code RVA starting this fall.
“We want to send more students to ARGS,” she said. “We had 20 slots at one point and we had to cut back to 16 because we wanted to buy two slots at Code RVA,” revealing that 17 students were interested in attending Code RVA, but only two could go.
“That is a travesty,” Pittman said. “That’s missed opportunities for 15 children. We have so many good things to offer and we have to limit who we offer them to.”
According to documents from the school division, the number of slots allocated to the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School has been on the decline since the 2014-2015 school year. In that year, the county had 20 slots before reducing to 18 during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.
In October, the school approved decreasing the number of ARGS slots by two, to 16, with the plan to allocate one slot each to Code RVA and the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond. In a later interview, school division officials said the plan to add an MWGS slot for the upcoming school year changed, with the school division instead opting to provide a pair of Code RVA student slots.
At the time, school superintendent David Clark noted that the cost of sending a student to ARGS increased from the previous year by $200, with the tuition cost to send a Dinwiddie student to the arts and technology school resting at $6,792 for the 2016-2017 school year, but, he stressed that the decision to reduce slots was less about money and more about providing students with additional choices.
According to Clark and data from other jurisdictions participating in Code RVA, the cost to send one student to the Richmond regional high school for a year will cost in the $9,000 range during the 2017-2018 school year.
Additionally, school board documents show plans to continue to decrease slots at ARGS through the 2020-2021 school year, with a projected drop to 15 slots in the 2018-2019 school year before falling to 12 total slots in the 2019-2020 school year.
While funding for regional high schools was mentioned by Pittman, the changing nature of the classroom, mainly high school classrooms, are also presenting challenges to school boards, Dinwiddie included.
“When the state is trying to recreate schools to allow for more vocational education, internships for students, and real-world experience, we are going to have a seriously hard time trying to add and trying to redesign what our high school should be doing for our young people. Every time we have to put something in, we have to snatch something out because we’re becoming stagnant in the funding system for schools, not just in Dinwiddie, but all around the state.”
Pittman also spoke to a graphic shown during Massengill’s budget presentation that showed the school division represents over 30 percent of the county’s general fund operations and transfers and that nearly 41-cents of a taxpayer’s dollar go to K-12 education, with the District 3 school board representative saying, “You’re looking at 600 employees, their insurance, benefits and retirement packages along with around 4,300 children and their transportation, buildings, books, computers, and all of the things that we have to provide for them.”
“We are a large piece of the pie, but it’s because of who we employ when compared to the other groups asking you for money,” she said.
As supervisors listened, Pittman noted a consolidated pay scale for all school staff and support staff has been designed, but the school division lacks the funds to move forward on it.
She also said the school division would love to offer more dual enrollment courses to give students a leg-up as they head to college, but those bring additional costs as well, including finding certified teachers to instruct the course while making the tough decision to cut another course that is already being offered.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, as of the 2014-2015 school year, which is the most current data available, 51 students, or less than four percent, of Dinwiddie High School’s approximately 1,350 students are enrolled in advanced programs that could allow them access to college credit upon completion.
For Pittman, after providing a litany of examples, her message was clear as she urged the county to take a look at its funding of the school division to prevent “stagnation” in Dinwiddie’s classrooms.
“I sit in meetings for hours trying to plan how we’re going to do more of this and that, and I sit there thinking, ‘We’re planning it but how are we going to put it in,'” she said. “You can plan all you want to, but who is going to pay for it.”
If we don’t look forward in the next couple of years of making some big adjustments, we may be going backward,” Pittman closed.
The board of supervisors will digest Pittman’s words, along with public comments from over the course of the budget building process ahead of their May 2 meeting where they will take action on its adoption.