The Stafford County School Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a $308 million operating budget for fiscal year 2020 that includes a 5 percent raise for all division employees, including administrators.

The board approved the budget before a standing-room-only audience of SCPS employees and parents, most of them wearing red to support the “Red for Ed” movement, which advocates for increased funding for education and higher pay for teachers.

“This is what democracy looks like,” said Matthew Lentz, a Stafford teacher and member of the Stafford Educational Association, during public comments Tuesday, after asking everyone in the audience to stand.

Christian Peabody, the president of the Stafford Education Association and a teacher at Falmouth Elementary School, said he feels the School Board and division employees worked together for the first time to create the new budget.

“It’s unifying and empowering that we get to present a budget [to the county Board of Supervisors] together,” Peabody said. “This is going to help return us to a national level of excellence that we’ve always known we had.”

Griffis–Widewater Board Member Jaime Decatur gave credit to the audience for the new level of advocacy involved in the creation of the budget this year.

“You guys started this, for the record,” she said.

The approved budget requests $129.6 million in local funding from Stafford County, an increase of $8.7 million over the current fiscal year.

It reflects several changes from the budget first presented by superintendent Scott Kizner in January.

In addition to the 5 percent raise, it includes an extra 1 percent raise to teachers on levels 13 and above of the teacher pay scale. It also includes funding to put school nurses on the same pay scale as teachers and requests 12 additional school counselors instead of the 17.5 Kizner originally asked for.

More than 20 people spoke during the comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting, all about either the school budget or the ongoing redistricting process.

Speaking in support of the 5 percent across-the-board pay raise, school employees told of their struggles to support themselves on their salaries in Stafford County, which has a median household income of $97,606, according to the county tourism website.

By contrast, the starting salary for a new teacher on a 10-month contract is $42,240, according to the school division’s pay scale.

One school employee who spoke Tuesday said that when she was a single parent, she lived in a motel because she could not afford the rent anywhere in the county.

A 31-year-old third-year teacher said she can no longer afford the apartment she shares with a roommate and is looking to rent a room in someone’s house.

“I want to start a family,” the teacher said, in tears. “How am I supposed to do that when I am renting a room in someone else’s house? I love teaching and I love my students, but I want to be able to do what I want for me, as well.”

Another teacher said he’s seen five first-year co-teachers come and go in the past six years.

“I think, ‘I don’t even want to learn your first name because you’re going to be gone soon,’ ” he said. “It’s really draining.”

Before voting to approve the budget, Hartwood Board Member Holly Hazard said she would support it, but hoped the board would not lose sight of other important issues facing Stafford schools.

“Teachers, please know that I support this 5 percent [raise],” she said. “But I have concerns that we need to be doing things other than compensation.”

Hazard said some county elementary schools are reaching capacity at almost 1,000 students, and class sizes are creeping up.

“We have to look at that and come up with a plan,” she said. “We’re going to have to go and work hand-in-hand with the supervisors to come up with a long-term plan for compensation within Stafford. We will fare better across the street [with the board of supervisors] when we say, ‘This is what we want to do to make this the best place for education.’ ”

Stafford County Administrator Tom Foley will present the county’s budget for fiscal year 2020 on March 5. The School Board will present its funding request to the board of supervisors on March 19 at 4:30 p.m., to be followed by a joint board budget work session.

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 @flsadele