Money for schools (copy)

Fredericksburg Superintendent David Melton’s nearly $48 million proposed budget for the 2019–20 school year is more than $3.3 million larger than the current budget.

That 7.5 percent increase is nearly twice the 3.8 percent average increase since the 2012–13 school year. It 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.

Melton said that in his 22 years as superintendent, he’s never before suggested such a big increase in funding from the local government.

“I don’t see any way around it,” he said. “I think that if we don’t ask, people won’t understand the challenges that we have.”

School officials are already struggling to attract and retain teachers, and the pupil-teacher ratio in many classes is larger than they’d like, he said.

There are 75 classes with 26 or more students at James Monroe High School this year, and 28 classes with 30 or more students. As a result, seven teachers have a standard load that exceeds what’s allowable by state standards unless they’re paid extra, and 10 teachers have been asked to give up their planning period to take on an additional class.

Whitney Keitt told the School Board during the public comment section of Monday’s meeting that she is teaching a total of 153 students in six World History II classes at James Monroe, and the proposed compensation of $1,046 for teaching between 151 and 159 students is inadequate. She said that some JMHS teachers who have fewer students than she does have been offered the opportunity to teach an additional class for “substantially more money.”

“Given the choice of having the extra students or receiving the money that the division has offered, I would have chosen not to receive the extra students,” Keitt said. “The amount of time and energy it takes to have even three more students ... is substantial. It impacts my family, and time that I’d like to dedicate to other things at the high school.”

Many classrooms at Walker–Grant Middle School also are overcrowded. There are 60 classes with more than 26 students this year, and 21 classes with more than 30 students. Eight teachers have a load that exceeds state standards unless they receive additional compensation, and three have taken on an additional class.

Barbara Powell, Walker–Grant’s choral music teacher, said that she is supposed to have a maximum of 200 students, and has had as many as 227 this year.

“That means I’m carrying an extra load of grading, planning and classroom management,” she said at the meeting. “It’s a load that I didn’t ask for. It was not discussed with me ahead of time. To add what amounts to an additional class to an already large teaching load has put a lot of stress on me.”

She said that the number of students she’s being asked to teach amounts to an additional class. Based on her salary, her compensation for that should be about $4,500, but the recommended amount she’d receive this year in a proposed stipend chart is $1,291. Board members tabled a vote on the proposal until a future meeting.

“I feel that we are doing our students and administration a big favor by taking on the extra work that we’re doing,” Powell said, “but I am concerned that our extra work seems comparatively worth so little.”

The most significant driver in the budget is $1.83 million for additional instructional positions to help ease teacher workloads and crowded classes, said David Baker, the school system’s chief financial officer. Others are $1.47 million to cover the 5 percent salary increase recommended in all three proposed budgets before the General Assembly, $426,271 to cover a possible 12 percent increase in health insurance and a $22,345 increase for purchased services, maintenance, repairs, materials and supplies.

Baker said that he’s concerned that the school system is close to exceeding the state’s standards of quality guidelines, which could jeopardize grant funding intended to reduce class size.

Jonathan Russ, the Fredericksburg school system’s chief administrative officer, said that student enrollment has grown 19 percent since 2009. The city’s schools have a total of 3,645 students this school year, up from 3,552 last school year. Enrollment is expected to reach 3,707 by next school year.

School officials are using the live birth rate in Fredericksburg’s 22401 ZIP Code to be able to project how many students will enter kindergarten. There are 351 enrolled in kindergarten at Hugh Mercer this year. While enrollment is projected to drop to 300 next school year, it could be higher if this year proves to be a trend instead of an anomaly.

“Without additional staff members, frankly, we’re playing catch up. I feel for the teachers who spoke to us tonight because we haven’t been able to hire the teachers we need to put in the classrooms to reduce those numbers. It’s that simple,” said Melton. “If we do not add these new positions, then we are going to be in worse shape next year than we are this year.”

School Board member Jannan Holmes asked what school employees’ raises will actually be if they have to pick up part of the increase in health insurance. Baker told her that it will depend on their salary and what tier they’re on. He said that he’s been talking with Anthem’s Local Choice representative, who’s told him that a firm figure should be available in a few weeks.

Chairwoman Malvina Kaye asked Baker if he’d looked into other providers to see if he could get a better deal. He said teachers would like the school system to keep Local Choice because of the providers in its network.

“We’re putting as much pressure on them as we can,” Baker said. “We have an outside broker who tries to find the best price for us.”

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