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Issues discussed at School Board "retreat" (i.e. annual planning meeting)

On Tuesday, while many people around the country were attending National Night Out activities, the School Board held their planning meeting for the upcoming school year known as their "retreat." Sadly, there were no beaches or catamarans involved. It was a long meeting that started at 4:30 and didn't wrap up until around 8:30, there was a lot of discussion. BTW heard some very encouraging things regarding messaging, communication and employee compensation, just for starters.

Topics of discussion at the School Board Retreat

Employee Compensation: One major theme that was touched on again and again was the issue of employee compensation. Teachers were not singled out but they were discussed. Overall, there seems to be an understanding of those on the SB that low salaries across many positions at SCPS is causing harm to it's ability to educate our children. All board members expressed concern about not being at median market levels for teacher pay and other positions and that this must be a priority next year and in years to come. Chairwoman Holly Hazard (Hartwood) even posited that maybe we shouldn't be shooting for the mean but the upper quartile! It won't happen overnight but with continued dedication to improving employee compensation, our children and SCPS as a whole will benefit greatly.

Cohesive Message and Communication: All board members also seemed to be on the same page regarding messaging. There was a solid resolution to continue to build communication pathways with the Board of Supervisors, the body that funds the school budget. The relationship has been non-existent in the past. While better now, it is still shaky and needs a more solid foundation. The SB discussed ways to build trust by increasing transparency with the BoS and the public at large. As you know, we are all about transparency here at BTW so these were welcome words.

Irene Egan (Aquia) said "(The BoS) need to know what our priorities are ASAP so that there is no confusion." Dwayne McOsker (George Washington) echoed this sentiment by stating that new items and programs shouldn't pop up once the budget has been established, that the budget document should remain tight and that the budget should reflect a few main priorities. Scott Hirons (Falmouth) went further and said that there is a "serious disconnect" with the BoS, that the SB needs to communicate with them about exactly what they desire for our school system here in Stafford. He emphasized that full accreditation is not a high enough standard. In the end, the takeaway was that the SB understands the need to find a few main priorities (mainly employee compensation), unify in that message and hit both the public and the BoS with that message soon and often. If everyone is on the same page from the beginning, there is no way anyone on the BoS can claim they didn't know what the SB's priorities were. Hirons stated the importance that both boards need to have a common vision of SCPS.

Review Results of High School Programs: Those of you with middle or high school students will likely be interested in hearing the results of the programs review currently being undertaken by SCPS. The review is mainly being done because it hasn't been done before. In the past, the schools have often instituted new programs but have never gone back to check their efficacy. As of Tuesday's meeting, the review of the Commonwealth Governor's School program has been completed with the review of the IB and APPX programs following closely behind. According to SCPS staff, the results of the reports will likely be rolled out one at a time at SB meetings starting in September through October. BTW will be there to share the results of these reports when they are released.

Budget and Funding: Hirons presented a interesting proposal created by the FAB (Finance and Budget Committee) which discussed school funding. To read the whole proposal, click the link here. It states "starting in FY19 and continuing in future years, at least 50% of new county revenue be dedicated to local school funding." According to Hirons, this new appropriation of funds would give SCPS a more predictable revenue stream in the future and would guarantee that funding as a percentage of county spending would not dip below 50% of Stafford County total revenue. It would also show a commitment on the part of the BoS that providing the best education to Stafford children is a main priority.

As you can see from the chart above, which was part of the presentation to the SB, the SCPS does not always get this funding from new revenue. There are risks with the plan, mainly that if new revenue is very low, schools will not get much additional funding. However, it seems that is a risk anyway, even if this plan is not in place. Of course, the new revenue could be perceived as a cap rather than a minimum, meaning some BoS members might not give additional funds when requested in future years. Jamie Decatur (Giffiths-Widewater) was concerned that they could guarantee this funding but then take away from other areas, meaning the BoS would not give the schools the same funding as the previous fiscal year. It has apparently never happened that the BoS has not at least met the previous year's school funding but it would need to be stipulated that this type of shell game would not occur.

The consensus of the SB was for the FAB to continue the dialogue regarding this idea. Hirons stated "we need to do something different because what we have been doing is not working." McOskar said that they need to show the BoS the risks of not providing more money to the schools while Patricia Healy (Rock Hill) went further to state that they should highlight the benefits to the county as well, not just the risks.

Hazard also brought up the issue of the Meals Tax Revenue. Stafford County gives all of it's revenue generated from meals to SCPS (every time you buy one of those Happy Meals for the kids, you help fund SCPS!). However, SCPS only gets the projected revenue from the taxes which is done the fiscal year prior. When revenue is higher than projected, as it was in FY 16 by almost $900K, the schools do not get the additional revenue. Hazard wants to get a policy in place to make sure that extra revenue finds it's way to the schools, as voters intended. I would hope that the will would be found to take this policy reassessment one step further: to make the BoS hold true to the commitment they made years ago to make the meals tax a BONUS revenue to the schools, rather than simply folding into the anticipated school funding in order to mitigate spending on schools.

Other Topics: A few other topics of interest were discussed at the meeting. After the calendar change debacle of a few months ago, some discussion was had regarding the make up and procedure of the calendar committee in the future. There was interest in reviewing how other counties go about their presentation and calendar approval process. There was no discussion regarding any date changes to a pre-labor day school start. This was simply a discussion about the procedures of the committee.

The SB also thought it might be time to review the code of conduct and the student dress code. There was a verbal re-commitment to continue the professional development for teachers begun this year with the first Teacher Summit. Egan commented that from what she heard, the teachers did really like it and that it was something else that they got that was not monetary. They also talked about further reducing class sizes, this time with a focus on middle school core classes.

What do you think of the retreat? Is there anything they missed or that you would like to see the SB focus on?