Omissions….

The School Board has posted the agenda for the September 4, 2013 school board meeting – the first public meeting of the 2013 – 2014 school year.  The schedule appears to be for a rather boring and uneventful meeting, which is rather surprising considering the unfinished business of last school year and several benign appearing items on the agenda that are cause for thought.

Items missing from the agenda include, but are not limited to:

(1) Zero Based Budgeting.  Last year the school board directed the school division to begin developing plans for zero based budgeting this year and to present those plans to them for consideration in the Fall.  There’s no mention of zero based budgeting at all in this agenda.  No update, no schedule, no anything.  Maybe the school division hasn’t developed those plans yet, but shouldn’t they at least update the school board and public about when those plans will be available?

(2) CIP.  The CIP is typically discussed and updated as part of the annual budget process.  Last year PWCS chose not to update or review the CIP because they’d be receiving bids for the 12th high school in the Spring and would have to re-do all of that work again.  Bids for the 12th high school were pushed back to the Fall and then to the Winter, reportedly at the request of PWCS.  The CIP, however, has not been reviewed or updated since 2012.  Shouldn’t it be?  The current CIP calls for PWCS to spend $52.97 million next school year on renewals and renovations.  Renewals and renovations are typically paid out of a mix of annual operating money and debt, and are generally in the $20 million range.  $52.97 million is more than twice the normal amount. While some of the projects can be eliminated, most of them are necessary improvements to schools in our community.  Over the next 5 years the  school division is looking at spending $250 million on renewals and renovations and over $500 million on new school construction.  Shouldn’t the CIP be discussed before 2014?

(3) Reducing Class Sizes.  So far it seems like the only attention the school division and school board are going to pay to reducing class sizes is to bat around an utterly useless and meaningless slogan.  Yet high class sizes, more than anything else, will undermine our children’s education and will cause people and businesses to consider locating elsewhere.  Shouldn’t the school board be doing something about this, like passing a policy setting maximum class sizes and then directing the school division to develop a plan for coming into compliance with the policy?  With class sizes as high as they are our schools won’t be in compliance this year, and probably not next year either, but we could start taking steps to move in that direction.  That won’t happen without leadership from the school board.

As for the items that are on the agenda, several ought to require some discussion.

(1)  Summer contract awards.  This item is on the consent agenda.  Here’s what the agenda item says “During the period of June 19, 2013 through September 2, 2013, there were no summer awards exceding $500,000.”.  In the past PWCS has provided the school division with a list of summer contract awards, without regard to the value of the awards.    Lisa Bell asked that the list be provided this year, yet no such list is available.  Shouldn’t the school division be willing to disclose the contracts awarded and construction change orders executed in the summer, like they said they would at the last school board meeting in June?

(2) 2014 Legislative Priorities

From the list:

  • “Oppose any bills that too narrowly define 65% of expenditures be spent on instruction or make the percentage requirement mandatory”.

I can understand why the school division would support this, but am perplexed as to why the school board would. Shouldn’t the school division’s priority be on instruction, not administration or non-instructional extra-curricular activities? Is it too much to ask that the school division limit administrative and non-instructional extra-curricular spending to 35% or less of tax dollars received?

  • “Oppose any bills which would divest or limit local school boards of their authority over the formation and operation of charter schools within their divisions”.

This is an interesting one that you wouldn’t understand unless you knew the history. Under state law right now local school divisions can reject any application for a charter school in their district without providing any explanation. The only way that charter school will open is if they appeal the rejection to the state board of education and state board overrides the local school division’s rejection. Last year a bill was proposed in the General Assembly that would have required local school boards to explain why they rejected an application for a charter school to form in their district. That’s all that was requested – an explanation.  UPDATE:  I was notified by Charles Pyle, Director of Communications for Va Dept of Ed, that local school boards have the final say in charter schools opening.  There is no appeal to the state board.

  • “Oppose any bills which would require funding to “follow the student” in situations in which the home school division offers a virtual school program but the student elects to enroll in one offered by another school division”

PWCS has a virtual school program that offers a handful of courses at the high school level. Those courses are generally non-AP courses. Other school divisions nearby offer courses through K12 and other virtual academies as part of their online programs, but PWCS students can’t take those courses unless their parents pay the tuition. Same with the courses the state offers through the Virtual Academy, and many of those courses are AP level courses.  Fairfax County Schools pays the tuition for any students taking classes through Virginia’s Virtual Academy.

It’s clear to me that the on-line courses PWCS offers are inadequate to meet the needs of our students, yet the school division places financial barriers against students enrolling in virtual courses offered by other divisions and the state. Is that really in the best interests of our children? Shouldn’t the school division provide the tuition for students enrolling in virtual classes offered by the state and other school divisions, especially when PWCS only offers a limited handful of virtual classes? At a minimum shouldn’t PWCS subsidize their tuition by the same amount that would be used if they took an on-line course from PWCS?

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