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School Board weighs open district proposal

Posted on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 10:35 am

Dr. Greg Smith, at left, details the open student policy to the public.

On April 10, 61 concerned residents, teachers and local officials watched as the school board voted 3-1 in favor of developing a policy for non-residential students.

The plan will include acceptance criteria and a tuition recommendation for students who attend Rappahannock schools but live outside Richmond County’s borders.

Dist. 5 School Board Member Ken Blackley cast the lone vote against the possibility of non-residential tuition, pointing out that out-of-county students had been coming to Richmond County Public Schools (RCPS) for the past 83 years.

“I think we’ve dragged them through enough…we’re either going to take them or not take any,” said Blackley, adding that he was tired of reading about “border students” in the local paper.

“Let’s call them students,” he said. “They’ve been labeled enough.”

Dist. 2 School Board Member Brenda Pemberton was not present at the meeting.

Recently an anonymous mailer,  riddled with inaccuracies, was sent out to county residents alleging that “border students” were attending RCPS at a hefty cost to taxpayers.

On March 25, it was the Non-Resident Student Committee’s (NRSC) recommendation by a 4-2 vote that RCPS continue to accept border students without making them pay tuition.

Superintendent Dr. Greg Smith noted that the committee wrestled with the decision, adding that it was their only non-unanimous recommendation to the board.

Every voting member on the committee, however, favored the superintendent reviewing the capacity of the school division per grade level to determine how many non-residential students could be accepted each year.

Currently, RCPS border students account for approximately 60 children.

Dr. Smith said it was a matter of school officials knowing what they were dealing with.

“If we’re going to continue to have 60 non-resident students, do we even have room for them?” Smith noted, adding that, to his knowledge, the school division had not undertaken an evaluation of the issue.

“The committee felt we should study that,” he said.

School Board Chair John Brown asked Smith if he envisioned a cap on the number of non-resident students coming in to stabilize the process.

Smith replied that the cap was something the committee hadn’t discussed, but said that it could be done.

All members on the committee also voted in favor of developing non-resident student acceptance criteria.

Smith admitted that a number of non-residential students who had been causing trouble or missing classes were sent home during the 2012-13 school year.

But Smith and the committee agreed to the importance of keeping the current non-residential students in RCPS due to their effect on school funding.

According to the NRSC report, nearly all school funding in Virginia is based on the following: Average Daily Membership (ADM), Composite Index and Required Local Effort (RLE).

The NRSC determined that the RCPS currently has an ADM of 1167.

According to his calculations, Smith pointed out that an ADM of 1160 gave the schools $6,708,570 in state funding for the school division.

He added that the 60 out-of-county attendees generated $291,193 of the revenue.

Smith also emphasized the schools’ heavy reliance on ADM due to the county’s low CI, which determines a division’s ability to pay educational costs fundamental to Virginia’s Standards of Quality (SOQ).

A local comparison chart provided by the NRSC showed Richmond County lagging behind Essex, Matthews, Middlesex and the rest of the counties on the Northern Neck with a CI of 0.3599.

On the other hand, Northumberland County, which consists of several waterfront properties, topped the list at 0.8000, the maximum point.

“They have a far greater ability to pay for their schools than Richmond County does,” Smith said, adding that, because of Richmond County’s low CI, “the state contribution means quite a bit of money in this locality.”

He noted that the county’s RLE, determined by its CI and SOQ, was a “misunderstood concept.”

He tackled the misconception that the locality had to make a payment for every student in attendance.

The anonymous mailer claimed that the county contributed $5,000 per out-of-county student to the school division.

Smith said the concept that the county had to make a contribution per-child was not true.

“Once the locality exceeds your RLE threshold to the next benchmark, which is based on your student population, [and] you add in 57 students, the locality doesn’t have to pay any more money for those kids,” said Smith.

He added that the RLE ensured that each school division had “pretty much spent their share” to support the local contribution.

“As the state makes contributions, the locality also has to make their fair share,” said Smith.

The NRSC report included the most recently available information from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) showing that of the 135 reported school divisions, every single one exceeded its RLE by an average of 81 percent in fiscal year 2011.

While some school systems’ local expenditures above the RLE ranged from 4 to 274 percent, Smith said that Richmond County fell near the average at 85 percent.

“Therefore, no local contribution is required,” said Smith, adding that in the school board’s conversations about the budget, they had not discussed the per pupil cost.

Smith noted that he did not bill county residents for 1187 students when he and Director of Finance Susan Johns budgeted for 1160 last year.

“I’m not asking the locality to pony up $4,100 for 57 students,” he said.

When factoring in the non-residents’ impact on class sizes and the instructional program, Smith calculated an average of less than one student per classroom.

He based his calculations on the core instructional classrooms in the schools, which produced an average student-to-teacher ratio of 19-to-1.

“These numbers will go down when I throw in counselors, music teachers and specialists,” said Smith. “But this is an accurate number if you walked into a classroom and started counting students.”

But 45 minutes later, Carter Wellford stood up and said that the 1167 students and 91 teachers in the school system did not support the 19-to-1 ratio.

“It’s more like 10 or 11 to 1, which is extremely low by any standards, state or otherwise,” said Wellford. “I would just ask the board to look at that ratio.”

Wellford added that by increasing the ratio to over 17-to-1, the school board was cutting out at least 37 teachers, thereby lowering the employees’ compensation plan.

“That puts back into the school board’s pocket anywhere from $1.5 to $1.7 million to do with it as [they] wish,” said Wellford.

However, state reports regarding the schools as well as local documentation and a visit to student classrooms refute Wellford’s claims.

Smith re-emphasized that by noting that the ratio only accounted for the core instruction teachers.

According to the staff directories for all three schools, there are 59 individual teachers who teach the core subjects of math, science, history and English at RCPS.

The total number of core instructors does not account for the total number of classrooms, in which some may team-teach.

“We absolutely need to keep those classroom sizes where we’re at,” said Smith.

It is important to note that Richmond County Schools recently were found to be the best in the region academically and one of a select group state-wide to meet annual standards set by the commonwealth.

Frank Johnson asked that the county and its citizens support Smith and his vision for the school division.

“Let’s not get caught up in the small things,” he said, eliciting applause from members of the audience.

The report on the tuition recommendation will be publicly presented to the school board Wednesday, May 8 at 7 p.m. in the Richmond County public meeting room.