Planned Failure

PWCS projects that it will open the 13th high school in the fall of 2019 to relieve overcrowding in western end high schools.  Battlefield high school opened in the fall of 2004 and Patriot high school opened in the fall of 2010.  PWCS knew that both Battlefield and Patriot would be overcapacity before they opened, yet their “plan” for relieving that overcrowding was to wait 9 – 14 years until the 13th high school opened in the fall of 2019.

Based on the enrollment projections provided by PWCS, the 13th high school is overcapacity, 5 years before it opens.

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Unacceptable Conduct

As I watched the school board meeting blast night I was reminded of the often used idiom about the trees getting in the way of the forest.  Readers of this blog will recall that I, and many others, opposed the 12th high school.  We opposed the school for multiple reasons, which we painfully and carefully explained in detail here, in letters to the editor of local newspapers,  and in public comments to the school board.

Our reasons included:

  • that the school’s only street access will be from a highway;
  • that the school bumps against an active dump that spews highly flammable methane gas;
  • that lacrosse fields located adjacent to what will be the school’s PE fields have had to close due to heath concerns resulting for decomposing partially digested mice and rats pulled from the dump by birds and contamination from airborne bird feces;
  • that the school is no where near the population centers in the county or the schools that are overcrowded by in area enrollment;
  • that the school will be  yet another 100% bus school;
  • that the school  included a pool two pools that weren’t disclosed anywhere in the CIP or PWCS web site until a few months before the project was set to go out to bid, and then, only when private citizens disclosed their existence in comments to the school board, and;
  • that the school included a black box theater and orchestra lift which weren’t disclosed by PWCS to the public or school board until just before the bids were awarded.

This project was shrouded in secrecy by PWCS from the beginning, perhaps deliberately.

Last night it became evident that several school board members weren’t paying attention during the debate over the 12th high school and clearly have no idea why people were opposed the 12th high school.

Just a reminder for those school board members – you’re reviewing the designs for the 13th high school, now, because the school division misled the public and the school board about what was included in the 12th high school.  That debacle resulted in the quagmire of mistrust in which you presently find yourselves.

The opposition to the 12th high school wasn’t about whether it should have used the less expensive Battlefield / Freedom design or the more expensive Patriot design.  It was about all the stuff that was included in the 12th high school that no one in the school division wanted to admit was there until they were forced to do so.

While $18 million may seem like a drop in the bucket, it’s roughly the cost of a 10 room addition.  PWCS could have built Patriot with the Battlefield / Freedom design AND put an addition on Brentsville that would have provided enough seats that Patriot and Battlefield wouldn’t be looking at being more than 30% overcapacity in the next school year.  With that in place, PWCS might have been able to delay the 12th high school a few years and put that money into renovating the older high schools in the county so that they’re more in line with 21st Century learning strategies.

One more thing.

I recognize that some school board members are playing political games with their comments that are dripping with derision and contempt.  I find that attitude unacceptable from an individual elected to stand for and advocate on behalf of our children.  Our citizens and children deserve better than that.  School board members who find themselves incapable of avoiding such games ought to resign so that candidates who are worthy of our children can be elected to fill their places.

Lowest Test Scores in the Area

At the last school board meeting Harry Wiggins, Chairman of the PWC Democratic Committee, addressed the board.  He stated that PWCS had the lowest test scores in the area.  Dr. Otiagbe appeared taken aback by that  and asked the Superintendent to address it.  The Superintendent responded that PWCS consistently exceeded state averages but didn’t elaborate further as it was quite late.

Both are mostly correct.

Confusing, isn’t it?  I’ll try to break it down a bit.

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Does the PWC School Board Take Education Seriously?

If we’re to believe our school board members and every other person who works for PWCS, the school division’s finances are at the point where we might have to cut or eliminate non-core services in the coming years; that to balance the budget things like specialty programs, sending students to TJ, elementary strings, and middle school sports might have to be eliminated.

I sat through the budget discussions last spring and listened to department head after department head bemoan how little money there was to maintain current service levels.  I heard how PWCS is understaffing special ed and certain student services to the extent that our children’s education is at risk.  I had a conversation with a senior level school division administrator about serious problems they know exist in one of our programs for mathematically advanced students, and listened as he told me that they didn’t have the staff to design and implement any sort of changes to the program.  Every school board member just attended a joint meeting with the BOCS about reducing class sizes where it was agreed that taxes might have to be increased to bring class sizes down.

If the school division’s finances are stretched as tightly as they say, why do so many school board members still believe the pool is a wise choice?  The school pool will cost the school division approximately $1 million a year, after user fees are deducted.  The total costs of the pool are in the $1.5  – $1.8 million range with user fees covering $500,000 – $800,000 of those costs.  That money to pay those expenses will come from our allocation of county tax receipts, and, as we’ve heard for everyone employed by or affiliated with the school division, the school division is broke and can barely afford basic instructional supplies.   Yet Dr Otiagbe, Mrs Jessie, Mrs Covington, and Chairman Johns still believe that spending $1 million a year for the school pool is a wise decision.

Why?  They know that money doesn’t grow on trees and must realize how little room there is in the school division’s budget for luxuries like a school pool.  Yet they still think it’s a good decision and refuse to say why.

This week Dr Otaigbe said he thinks every PWC school student should be given an iPad.  PWCS officials implied that the only thing holding us back was our budget.  Are you kidding me!  Just so I understand, if PWCS had Fairfax’s budget, we’d be buying and issuing iPad or lap books for all of our students?  Seriously?  That’s roughly $17 – $34 million.

Classrooms in many of our schools are too large to manage.  Our teachers haven’t gotten the salary increases they deserve and may not be getting them in the coming years as the state requires school districts to pay back the deliberate underfunding of the VRS.  Schools have been rationing things like toner and paper.  But spending $1 million a year on a pool is a wise use of funds and buying iPads for students is a necessity.

Hugh????

I can’t imagine that these school board members are that stupid.  I was willing to give these folks the benefit of the doubt.  I figured maybe they had inside information that indicated that the school division would be getting more money from who knows where.  Maybe someone bought a winning lotto ticket with PWCS money so now the school division has several hundred million it didn’t expect.  Because barring that, I don’t know how the school division can pay for all these nice to haves.

Unless there’s something else at play.

At the joint school board / BOCS meeting, the BOCS agreed that we may need to increase taxes to adequately fund our schools.  Maybe these school board members expect that the tax increase will be sufficient to fund their pet projects, so they don’t need to worry about fiscal restraint.  The pool, iPads for students, increased spending on conferences and travel without justifying the expenditure, $100 million on a high school, astro-turf fields – all are perfectly fine as long as someone is available to pay for it.

It’s not that the PWC School Board isn’t serious about education, it’s that they’ve found their sugar daddy to pay for their playthings, and it’s us.

Gil Trenum Says “School Pool” Ineffective Use of Taxpayer Funds

The letter below was sent by Brentsville District School Board Representative Gil Trenum to each representative of the PWC Board of County Supervisors and School Board on August 3, 2013.  It is published here, in its entirety, with Mr Trenum’s permission.

August 3, 2013

Chairman Stewart,

I am writing to you because I am out of town on Navy Reserve duty and unable to attend the Joint BOCS-School Board meeting on August 6th.  I wanted to be sure that you are aware of my thoughts and concerns regarding the proposed pool complex at the 12th High School site location.

I do not dispute the need for additional swim facilities in Prince William County. However, providing recreational swim opportunities is not the core mission of the School Division. This is the responsibility of the County Parks and Recreation Department. The County Park and Recreation Department website says: “The Prince William County Department of Parks & Recreation provides indoor and outdoor recreational opportunities to the residents of Prince William County.”  When we intentionally duplicate services with multiple county government organizations we are not effectively spending the tax dollars that our constituents have granted us stewardship over.

Some have compared the building of a swimming pool at the 12 high School site to building of gymnasiums and field facilities. I disagree with this comparison. When we build gymnasiums and fields we build them for use by our students in school-related activities and they are built to meet these requirements and in accordance with state guidelines. The proposed pool complex is built to meet larger community needs and requirements, not school needs. In its presentation to the School Board the PWCS Administration included non-school related benefits such as use by elderly citizens for exercise and therapy, additional swimming lanes for non-school teams, life guard and rescue trainees, and recreational swimmers in all age groups from across Prince William County to justify the cost of the facility. These are all worthy uses, but they are not the responsibility of the School Division.

At one point the administration even suggested that we could use the pool facility to host birthday parties to generate revenue … I hope that an explanation as to how this is not a PWCS responsibility is not needed.

The school division is not adequately funded to support the construction, operations and maintenance costs associated with the pool complex. The capital costs alone will be on average approximately $725K per year (more in the early years, less later on) for the next 20 years.  PWCS administration estimates are that the operational costs will be $800K annually. The administration estimates that they can generate revenue equal to 70-100% of this cost assuming 100% utilization (that’s a lot of birthday parties). I believe that this assumption is overly optimistic and that we will come nowhere near 100% utilization. I feel that a better example of the revenue that can be generated is in Arlington County where in their best years they generate revenue of approximately 50% of operating costs. That puts us somewhere between $250K – $400K in additional operating costs annually (plus inflation) for a total of $1M – $1.2M in annual costs over and above any revenue that is generated for the next 20 years to pay for the pool facility.

We simply do not have the resources to support the additional expenses associated with the swimming pool, make any progress in reducing class sizes (we have the highest student-teacher ratio in the state), execute our CIP to accommodate the expected growth and hope to maintain competitive compensation packages for our teaching staff. The School Division does not control the revenue sources we depend on. The two primary sources are state funding and the county transfer. The percentages vary from year to year but they typically represent approximately 85%-90% of our revenue. At the state level the Cost of Competing Allowance (CoCA) has been under attack for the last couple of budget cycles. This past year the Governor’s proposed budget eliminated the CoCA completely. At the end of the day the final state budget included a partial restoration, but the resulting hit to our school division was still several million dollars. It is reasonable to assume that the CoCA will continue to be targeted for elimination and we should plan accordingly.

Every year during the budget process the School Division presents a five-year plan based on revenue estimates from the state and the county. The revenue estimates that we use for the county side of the equation are provided by the county. In recent years the BOCS has consistently funded the school division at levels less than what was provided in their estimates, so while we don’t know exactly how much the BOCS intends to fund the school division next year (and in the out years) we can be reasonably confident that it will be less than what we were told this year and the following year will be less than what you tell us next year. This economic uncertainty is just not the appropriate environment for the school division to take on the capital and operational expenses associated with new programs and services that are not a part of the PWCS mission.

As I said in the beginning, I do not dispute the need for additional swim facilities in Prince William County. The school division and the county certainly should work together to more effectively spend tax dollars and I see this as an opportunity to do so. Per its own web site the county recognizes that pool facilities are within the purview of the Parks and Recreation Department. I fully support the county building, operating and maintaining a pool complex at the site of the 12th high school. This is a good location for such a facility and this would save the county the cost and process of acquiring a separate site. The school division has already paid for the design and engineering plans associated with the pool complex; the county could use these designs and not have to incur these costs. The school division will have to do the site work and build the parking lot for the school, so these costs would not be borne by the county as well.

Thank you for your time. I am sorry that I am not able to attend the meeting but I hope you all have a productive discussion.

Very Respectfully,

Gil Trenum

Brentsville District School Board Representative.

One of the Best Things PWCS has to Offer

With all the complaining we do about PWCS, I thought it might be time to compliment the school system on one of the many things it does well, and yes, there are many many things the school division does quite well.   This first one is a unique program that should be a model for all schools – New Directions Alternative School.

New Directions

New Directions is public school in Prince William County that offers an alternate to students who are at risk of falling behind or dropping out.   The children who attend New Directions are what many call our most “at risk students”.  They are students who have special needs that’s aren’t being met in a traditional school, students with family issues that prevent them from attending school from 6 – 3 every day, or students who are habitually truant or who have gotten into trouble.  This school offers them a chance, sometimes their last chance, to get their high school diploma and go on to college or a career, if they want it and are willing to work for it.

The school offers flexible schedules and a mix of classroom and digital learning, including AP courses, so that students can adapt their school schedule to better align with their lives.  Their Robotics team defended their title this year at the regional robotics competition by coming in 2nd out of 168 teams and will head to the national robotics competition.

The faculty and staff provide support and encouragement to struggling students and pushes students to excel.  It has strict attendance requirements and tough discipline for students who step out of line.

New Directions opened in the fall of 2006 with 200 students in attendance.  Over 500 students attended New Directions in the 2012 – 2013 school year.  Over 100 students graduated from New Directions this Spring; many are headed off to college in the Fall.

Without a doubt, New Directions is one of the best things PWCS has to offer.

Six Pools in Three Schools * UPDATED

Several months ago I addressed the PWC School Board about their plans to build a pool in the 12th high school.  I asked how the annual cost of the pool could be justified when our classes are jammed to the gills, our schools are overcrowded, and our teachers are underpaid.  Over the past several months I’ve acknowledged that there is a need for addition year round indoor pool facilities in our county – that the facilities at Chinn, Dale City, and The Freedom Center are simply inadequate for a community of our size.  As I’ve explained multiple times to anyone willing to listen, I’m not opposed to a pool in the school, just to having the school division manage and pay for it.  To me, pools, and the programs in them like Mom and Me swimming classes or aquatic aerobics, are the responsibility of the Park Authority and not the school division.

I’ve changed my mind.

I don’t think the school division should build pools in the 12th, 13th, and 14th high schools, no mater who manages them or pays for them.

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