Stafford Teachers budget public hearing

Stafford County teachers attend a public hearing on the budget in Stafford board chambers.

Entering board chambers on Tuesday, Stafford County supervisors expected to advertise a proposed fiscal year 2020 budget with a 99 cent real estate tax rate—the same as the current rate.

In what may be considered a small victory for the Stafford School Board, supervisors voted to support a $1.03 advertised rate. The difference could lead to higher taxes for homeowners and a 5 percent raise for every teacher in the county—an outcome desired by school officials and the Stafford Education Association.

Negotiations in the coming weeks between county and school officials will determine the final tax rate, and the amount of money the county sends to the School Board. The School Board will then decide how to allocate those funds.

County Administrator Tom Foley’s fiscal 2020 budget, written with the 99-cent real estate tax rate in mind, allows for a 2.5 percent raise for all county employees, including teachers.

During Tuesday night’s public hearing, teachers pitched a 5 cent real-estate tax rate increase in the new county budget to fund the 5 percent raise, asking for an advertised tax rate of $1.04.

“Five percent is a good start,” said Matthew Lentz, a German language teacher at Colonial Forge High School. “The pay raise will motivate teachers to stay in Stafford and the pay raise is important because it’s for everyone: the bus drivers, custodians, all the way through to the principals.”

Thirty-three educators took to the podium during the hearing, and all had similar messages. The majority cited low salaries, low morale, long hours, overcrowded classrooms, vacancies, inadequate raises and, in many cases, the need to take additional jobs outside of teaching to make ends meet.

During a joint budget work session prior to the vote, Stafford School Superintendent Scott Kizner and county School Board members openly discussed the salary increase with the supervisors as a way to invest in students, improve the school system and retain quality teachers.

“What I see here today is rare,” said School Board Chairwoman Patricia Healy. “We’re having a dialogue. We’re actually listening to each other on this issue. We usually come in with our body armor on, ready to be abused.

“This dialogue is not only positive for us, it’s positive for the Stafford community. When we invest in our schools, we invest in the community. Our challenge is to retain who we have and to attract future teachers.”

In the end, the supervisors voted 4–3 in favor of advertising the $1.03 tax rate. Supervisors Mark Dudenhefer, Wendy Maurer and Gary Snellings all voted against the new advertised tax rate.

“Last year, the Board of Supervisors raised taxes 3 cents and gave all county and school employees a 2.5 percent raise,” Snellings said. “This year, our budget will provide another 2.5 percent raise without raising taxes. I cannot and will not support back-to-back tax increases.”

The board can approve a lower rate, but cannot go higher without re-advertising the higher rate.

If the higher advertised rate is approved April 16, the real estate bill for the average home in Stafford, valued at $301,300, would increase $120 per year to $3,103.

“I am appreciative that the Board of Supervisors has advertised a tax rate to support an investment in our school system and other important county services,” said Kizner.

Stafford County’s total budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $618.8 million, with $315.2 million of that in the General Fund. The Stafford School Board’s budget had requested $130.1 million from supervisors, but the county administrator’s proposed budget allocated $125.1 million.

The school system’s proposed budget includes new counselors, additional staff to meet the needs of children with disabilities, additional support positions, an increase in stipends, compensation for mentors, and a 5 percent pay raise for all school employees.

Christian Peabody, a music teacher at Falmouth Elementary School, said he feels confident a raise will be approved in April. But if it isn’t, he believes many teachers will leave Stafford for better-paying jobs elsewhere.

“If it does get to that point, we’re going to see a mass exodus of teachers from Stafford,” he said.

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James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438 jbaron@freelancestar.com