Headwaters Board Chair Gary Aichele gave an emotional speech in support of the county’s public schools.

Students to return to 4-day instruction starting in March

It’s budget season for the Rappahannock County Public Schools, and at Tuesday night’s joint meeting between the School Board and the County Board of Supervisors local officials had a candid conversation about the school division’s declining enrollment. 

“This is very much an elephant-in-the-room question,” said Hampton District Supervisor Keir Whitson. “I know it’s never an easy answer but it’s a question that I constantly hear from constituents: How is it that student enrollment continues to decline yet our funding of the school system continues to increase?”

While the dollar amount of the county’s annual contribution to RCPS has steadily decreased over the past several years, costs on a per-student basis are rising as enrollment falls. Last year the county paid little over $8.6 million to RCPS (not including CARES Act funds), accounting for roughly two thirds of the school’s $12.9 million budget.   

“Costs go up,” said RCPS Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley, explaining that RCPS is “funding schools at higher levels,” and that rates of pay have increased over the years. “The county contribution line is fairly low considering, I think it’s about $11,000 per pupil if you figure it out that way, which is still really low considering other counties spend about $13,000 or $14,000 on average,” Grimsley said. “So what you’re spending is I think a good deal for what you’re getting at a small school.”

County Administrator Garrey Curry added that looking only at the county’s contribution to the total school budget “doesn’t give you a perspective of the state funding and if Dr. Grimsley showed you a chart of the state funding you would see that even on a per-pupil basis we’ve really struggled and the state just hasn’t stepped up.

“When the state doesn’t step up, there’s only one other place for the money to come from and that’s the local [level],” Curry said.

The state of Virginia determines how much funding to contribute to local school divisions by utilizing a formula it calls the Local Composite Index (LCI). Each county’s ability to pay is calculated based on local property values, adjusted gross income and taxable retail sales. Rappahannock has one of the highest LCI scores in the commonwealth, meaning that the state contributes no more than 20% to RCPS’ annual budget.   

“The buses still have to roll, the lights have to be on, the heat has to be running, the facilities still have to operate. Food still has to be cooked,” said School Board Chair Wes Mills. “And if you took 100 students away, it’s not like you can get rid of a second grade teacher — the math doesn’t work out that way.” 

During the public comment period, Headwaters Board Chair Gary Aichele gave an emotional speech in support of the county’s public schools. “These conversations between the two boards are extraordinarily critical to the future of the county,” Aichele said. 

“For whatever reason Rappahannock is one of the most disadvantaged counties in the commonwealth when it comes to the share of our kids’ education that gets paid for by the state. I think in our region we have the lowest share paid for by state money. 

“The reality is that despite overwhelming obstacles to quality education, Rappahannock continues to shine as an incredibly creative, dynamic, wonderful place to have your kids go to school … The real question is: how does this school system continue to thrive and flourish and do such a great job when it has so few dollars provided by both the state … and when county contribution stays relatively flat,” Aichele said.

The School Board and the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors will continue to hold public hearings on the school budget next month.

Back to school in March

RCPS students in kindergarten through third grade will be the first to return starting on March 15, followed by fourth and fifth graders two weeks later. If all goes well, sixth through twelfth grades will return in mid-April for the last six weeks of the school year.  

“Mentally and emotionally, the sooner these kids come back the better off they’re going to be,” said Chris Ubben, who represents the Wakefield district.

School Board members pushed to have the high school students begin returning to four-day instruction concurrently with the elementary school, but Grimsley dissuaded them, explaining that because the high schoolers move throughout the building from classroom to classroom much more than elementary school students, they are more susceptible to the transmission of COVID-19. 

Grimsley said she preferred to wait a couple weeks for the community transmission rates in the county to decline before sending high schoolers back to the classroom four days a week. 

Loss or no loss?

The School Board and County Board of Supervisors signed a joint letter to the Virginia General Assembly regarding the state’s benchmark for No Loss funding. The state’s No Loss funding provision was designed to protect school divisions from budget cuts based on enrollment losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in her letter, Grimsley wrote that the “current calculation structure for ascertaining enrollment to apply the No Loss funding disbursement is flawed and not equitable” for rural schools with high poverty rates.

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