Violating the Public Trust – UPDATED

Government officials, whether elected by the people, appointed by elected officials, or employed to work for government entities, aren’t supposed to break the law.  They aren’t supposed to lie to us.  State statutes provide specific instances where they are expected to keep quite about certain things, but that doesn’t absolve them from the legal obligation to provide information that’s requested of them under the Freedom of Information Act.

By now most of you know the contrivers about the graves at the 12th high school.  Officials with PWCS have stated that the surveyor, Ross, France, and Ratliff LTD, failed to inform them of the graves or note them on the 2008 survey they completed of the land.  Several concerned citizens and school board members have requested this survey but have been unable to obtain it.  They’ve been given number of different answers from Officials with PWCS – that the survey can’t be located, that the FOIA request is too broad or that it will cost thousands of dollars in FOIA fees for school division employees to locate and provide the survey, or that the survey can’t be provided because doing might put the school division at risk of litigation.

Perhaps this is why…
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Misleading the Public

On Wednesday night the PWC School board will vote to approve the bids for building the 12th high school.  I suspect the votes will go in favor of the school plus the pool. Chairman Johns, Dr Otaigbe, Mrs Jessie, and Mrs Williams have all said they strongly support the pool.  Mrs Covington says she’s undecided, but has indicated her support for the pool in the past.  Mr Trenum, Mrs Bell, and Mrs Satterwhite are opposed to the pool.

By now most of you know the issues about the pool.  Many folks have been shocked at the secrecy within the school system and the disdain certain employees appear to have for the public and elected officials.  From the pool to the Lynn family cemetery and moving their graves, this school and the pool has been an example of how not to do things.

Other folks are covering the Lynn family cemetery, so I won’t repeat those issues.  The school division’s behavior in this regard has been, in my opinion, reprehensible.

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Drowning in Chlorine….

The lies , distortions, and deliberate misrepresentations about the school pool have continued and even expanded in scope.  In an attempt to lift us up above the chlorine fumes, below are few clarifications.

Any numbers cited are from the Superintendent’s proposed budget because the final, approved budget for this school year isn’t available on the PWCS web site.

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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.

Headbangers Ball…

I’ve been attending school board meetings for longer than I care to remember.  There are meetings that you walk out of feeling all warm and fuzzy, meetings where you leave wanting to slay dragons, and meetings where you want to run screaming around the parking lot banging your head against the pavement.  Last night was a head banging sort of night.

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Please Help Us Understand

Before I begin I want to say that I like Milt Johns.  I think he’s an intelligent, kind, and generous man.  He’s a brilliant attorney, loves his wife and his kids, and cares about our community.  He cares so much that he was willing to run for and serve as the Chairman of our School Board.  I’m proud to say that I campaigned and voted for him in the last election.

I disagree with Milt wholeheartedly on the issue of the school pool.

In his latest letter published in local press, Milt said we can’t blame the school pool for all that ills our school system.  He’s right on that point because the cost of operating and paying off the debt issued for the school pool isn’t included in the current school year’s budget.   The school pool isn’t the reason there are 38 kids in some high school math classes, or why so many of our schools are overcrowded, or why our schools are rationing supplies like ink, toner, and paper in the 2nd week of the school year.  The school pool isn’t the reason high school students have to purchase the books they’ll be reading in English or why our teachers haven’t gotten the raises they deserve in the last bunch of years.  The school pool isn’t the reason some of our buses have kids seated 3 to a bench.

Milt is absolutely right.  We can’t blame the school pool for any of those things.

But we sure can question the wisdom of spending what will likely be $1 million or more a year on a school pool when those things are commonplace in our schools.

To many of us, the school pool simply makes no sense.

If PWCS doesn’t have enough money to provide basic supplies like ink and toner and paper to our classrooms now, how will we have enough in a few years to pay an additional $1 million in expenses for the pool?

Where will the money for the pool money come from?

Is spending a million plus a year on the pool a wise choice when we have classes with 38 children in them, can’t provide our teachers with the supplies they need in the classroom, and don’t pay our teachers a wage that’s competitive with other schools in the region?

How is a pool a higher priority than our classrooms and our teachers?

Help us understand.  Please, Milt, Betty, Dr O, and Lillie, help us understand why you think the pool is a wise choice for our school system, in lieu of the financial struggles that it faces.  Help us understand where the money to pay for it will come from.  Please help us understand because many of us just don’t get it.

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.