Commentary: Friends of Hanover Schools air concerns
Editor’s Note: The following remarks were first delivered to the Hanover School Board during its Dec. 10 meeting by Friends of Hanover Schools.
We would like to follow up on some concerns we have discussed with you before and to also speak to some new issues that have come up.
First, we understand that there is a comprehensive facilities study that is being completed; thank you for your attention to those needs. Once the study is completed, there will be an extensive list of capital improvements for each school. We would like to request that each board member speak to their respective supervisors and urge more funding for such capital improvements and maintenance of our schools.
As you probably know, recently the Board of Supervisors approved a plan to construct a new courthouse that is expected to cost $44 million. While we support this project, we believe that there should also be adequate funding set aside for capital improvements at our schools. The safety of our citizens is a driving factor behind the approval of the new courthouse project. While we agree that the safety of our citizens that visit the courthouse is important, the safety of our children in our schools is of at least equal importance. At least some Hanover schools are older than the current courthouse and because of their age and some delayed maintenance, many of those are having issues, such as mold, leaking roofs, and infestations of insects and vermin. Patrick Henry and Lee-Davis high schools and John Gandy and Mechanicville elementary Schools are examples of this.
According to publicly available HCPS budget documents we had a general fund of $200 million in 2008 and by last year it was down to $177 million – that is an 11.5 percent decrease in funding while costs have risen. Our school system has been excellent for years and deserves to be funded at its 2008 level. We realize that it will take time to return to that level, but expressing it as a priority to the board of supervisors is important.
Second, we continue to be concerned about the inadequate sums of money given to individual schools. The last time we spoke about this, our concerns about individual schools’ inability to cover everyday supplies were highlighted, but tonight we want to emphasize that our schools need adequate funding to cover bigger instructional tools such as SMART Boards and LCD projectors. While the HCPS central office often provides the labor to install such items, school budgets are expected to cover their purchase and maintenance. The school budgets cannot possibly cover those items and everyday supplies as well. Parents are raising tens of thousands of dollars to fund equipment and instructional tools that our students need to learn and that our educators need to do their jobs. This is not right. Would we ask families of victims or families of the accused who use our courthouse to pay for security or technology that police officers or officers of the courts need to do their jobs?
Third, it has come to our attention that the new directive stating that HCPS substitutes can only work 29 hours per week has generated a crisis-level shortage of substitutes, contributing to a vicious cycle in which teachers must cover for colleagues, which cuts into their planning time, increasing burnout and teacher absences, which increases demand for subs. Furthermore, to counter this problem, retired teachers are being asked to substitute above all other functions. This situation is also causing a lack of consistency for our children. Lost instructional time and lack of consistency when there is a substitute teacher is hard enough, but now one class may have more than one substitute per absence period or may have substitutes who are less qualified or who have little to no relationship with the students they are teaching.
Investing in fewer longer-term or regular subs would save money in the long run, both in terms of costs in instructional time and costs to having to manage a bloated pool of substitute teachers.
Fourth, we continue to hear reports of job dissatisfaction and low morale among secondary teachers [who have to teach six of eight periods during the school day]. We understand that 6/8 is here to stay. We support keeping the “8” but we also support reconsidering the “6.” While the HR report presented two months ago stated that attrition is not higher than average, we have heard that at the high school level it is higher than average – in the double digits, even, with more to come. We are doing our own research to confirm this.
We used to have 1,700 teachers in this county. Now, we have 1,500. This reflects a drop of 11 percent in staffing versus a 3 percent drop in enrollment. Elementary class sizes have risen. Middle school classes in some schools are up to 30 per class. High school teachers were assured that their class sizes would decrease but that hasn’t proven to be the case for many of them. Many secondary teachers are no longer able to give attention that is needed to students and don’t assign challenging, enriching assignments, such as essays because they don’t have time to evaluate them. On top of 6/8, there is the aforementioned subbing issue and, as high schools complete their first round of SOL make-ups and re-takes, some teachers are being compelled to give up their planning to proctor SOLs and cover other classes or duties like study halls because retirees cannot proctor SOLs as they are in demand as subs.
Lastly, we want to let you know that for both financial and educational reasons we support the resolution to reform SOL testing that 65 other Virginia school boards have signed on to. We hope you will sign this resolution, as well.
About the Writer:
Rachel Levy serves as secretary of Friends of Hanover Schools, a community group whose primary focus is educating the citizens of Hanover County about the school budget process and the impact of funding reductions.