Fredericksburg parents urge School Board to build new elementary school

Hugh Mercer Elementary School Feb. 13, 2019.

Nearly a dozen parents urged Fredericksburg’s School Board on Monday to build a new school to ease overcrowding instead of—or in addition to—expanding Lafayette Upper Elementary School.

School Board members voted last month to approve a 25-Year Student Capacity Plan that would expand Lafayette instead of building a long-promised third elementary school. Construction would begin in July, and Hugh Mercer Elementary second-graders would move there when work is completed in 2021. The plan also calls for James Monroe High School to be expanded in 2024 to provide space for an additional 200 students.

School and city officials hashed out the plan during several joint meetings in which they considered the city’s other pressing needs, including a new fire station. Their decision was based partly on Moseley Architect’s school enrollment projections, which several parents have said are inaccurate and underestimate future enrollment growth. They added that Lafayette would be at capacity by the time it’s completed.

Caitie Finlayson, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Mary Washington, told the board at Monday’s packed meeting that she had researched the methodology that Moseley used, and it didn’t follow best practices. She urged school officials to get new estimates from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, which develops the official population estimates for Virginia and its localities.

Several other parents of students at Lafayette and Hugh Mercer said that adding classrooms at Lafayette wouldn’t alleviate space issues in the rest of the building, including the clinic, cafeteria, gym and hallways, as well as on school buses where elementary school students sometimes have to sit four on a seat. Emily Mohrman, a third-grade teacher at Lafayette, said that the school’s cafeteria is so overcrowded that the first lunch period is 10:40 a.m.

Cristina Mitchell, a paraprofessional at Hugh Mercer who is working on her teaching degree, said that she’s researched and seen firsthand the effects of overcrowding. She said they’re linked to aggression, antisocial behavior, lower quality of instruction, lower grades, missed opportunities for teachers to connect with students, and higher levels of burnout and absenteeism.

“I implore you to do what is best for our children,” she said.

Anne Little said that she doesn’t have any children or grandchildren in the city’s schools, but realizes that the city’s investment in educating its children pays off in making Fredericksburg a better place.

“Overcrowding is a wake-up call for the city,” she added, then urged the School Board to reject the expansion of Lafayette. “City Council needs to raise taxes and find the funds to build the school.”

Malvina Kaye, who chairs the School Board, thanked everyone who spoke. She said that the key issue for her in Superintendent David Melton’s nearly $48 million proposed budget for the 2019–20 school year, which they were to vote on Monday, was the 5 percent pay hike for the school system’s employees. She said that other school districts are increasing teachers’ salaries, and that the city will lose its experienced teachers if it isn’t competitive.

“I just can’t hear anymore that we can’t give our teachers a decent raise,” she said.

School Board member Jarvis Bailey agreed, saying that he was encouraged to see so many citizens come out to support building a new school, but the fight is really about the budget.

“We’ve never gotten what we need for our students,” he said. “We have to have teachers. We have to have programs—staff to staff the new capacity. We do our homework every year, we do our due diligence and ask for something to get the job done, and we get cut short.

“What we need is continued support from our citizens who say that our most important asset is our children, our students. We asked for a new building. City Council said we don’t have enough money. Let’s work with City Council to figure this out.”

Bailey added that now the School Board has such a groundswell of support from residents, “Maybe we ought to ask for the moon.”

His comment drew a burst of applause from the audience.

School Board member Jannan Holmes suggested they amend the budget to include funds in the capital improvement plan for a new school, but Kaye said she wasn’t willing to do that yet. She said the budget Melton presented was their best option for now.

“My focus is on the teachers,” she said.

Melton said the School Board could always come back to City Council and ask for the new school.

Board members voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget, which is more than $3.3 million larger than the city school system’s $44.6 million budget for this school year. That’s a 7.5 percent increase, which is nearly twice the 3.8 percent average increase since the 2012–13 school year.

The budget includes an increase of $1.2 million in state funding and $2.1 million from the city to provide a 5 percent pay hike for the school system’s employees, plus the addition of 19 instructional positions to help ease crowded classrooms.

To view the budget, visit cityschools.com and click the “Operating Budget” link.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407 cjett@freelancestar.com