Prince William board halts schools' plan to add teachers

Superintendent Steven L. Walts said he was
Superintendent Steven L. Walts said he was "extremely disappointed" for students.
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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors postponed accepting and budgeting federal stimulus funds for school jobs Tuesday, halting Superintendent Steven L. Walts's effort to hire 180 more teachers by next month.

"We always respect and honor the decisions of our governing bodies," Walts said in an e-mail. "While our preference is to have the new teachers in place for this year in order to positively affect our students' learning as soon as possible, we will postpone our plans. . . . For the thousands of students who will not have the additional teachers this year, I am extremely disappointed."

Supervisors called for Tuesday's special meeting out of concern that schools officials were preparing to hire teachers with funding they expected to get as part of the $10 billion federal Education Jobs Fund bill passed early this month. Virginia is set to receive almost $250 million from the bill but had not filed an application by late last week to receive the funding and determine how it would be spread across the state. State officials are expected to apply for the funding before the Sept. 9 deadline.

Supervisors said they are concerned that the schools would use one-time funding for an ongoing cost. They said they will reconsider accepting the funds during fiscal 2012 budgeting, when more information is available about the funds and a complete list of school needs is provided. The School Board is scheduled to discuss the issue Wednesday.

"I'm a little disappointed [supervisors] didn't wait until the September meeting, but I'm glad they left it an open question and that it's not off the table forever," said School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large). "I hope we have a chance to discuss this further with the board."

County Executive Melissa S. Peacor said she received a letter dated Aug. 20 from Walts stating that he was working with his staff to offer a modified contract and begin hiring teachers immediately. The contract would state that a new teacher's future with the schools would depend on whether supervisors approve the funding. Walts, who supervisors say didn't consult them, was not at the meeting.

"The people elected two boards of eight people each, but [Walts] thought it was appropriate to make multimillion-dollar spending decisions without the help of the elected government bodies," Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said.

Walts said in his e-mail Wednesday that although the school system has been recruiting and considering modified contracts, nobody has been offered one or hired. Walts said the hope was to get new teachers before the first day of school to avoid disruptions. He said that he has been working with principals and that their intention in moving forward was "entirely focused" on helping students.

Nohe was one of only five supervisors who attended the meeting and one of four -- along with supervisors Michael C. May (R-Occoquan), John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) and W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) -- who voted for the resolution. Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) objected to the board acting with so few members present and without hearing from Walts first, but his motion to table the resolution until a future meeting failed.

Instead, he said that he would leave the room rather than vote, in an attempt to prevent the board from having the necessary quorum. But the county attorney ruled that because Principi was still in the room -- though heading out the door -- a quorum was present. Although some School Board members attended the meeting, no one from the county schools administration did.

"I feel the School Board was put on the stand to do the Pontius Pilate dance, apologizing for where their staff was," Covington said.

About a dozen people, mainly teachers, showed up to speak, mostly in support of the funding.

"I urge you to stand up for the children and accept the money," Prince William resident David Foose told supervisors. "We have rising class sizes and new [adequate yearly progress] standards to meet. The government does not denounce this sort of job fund, so why do you?"

Opponents, however, urged the county to be fiscally responsible and not accept funds. They said because they are one-time funds that would be used to create ongoing costs and because they add to the federal debt, future generations would be left paying for them. Many supervisors echoed their concerns.

"It's the children and the children's children . . . who will have difficulty attaining any sort of wealth because they will be saddled with debt like this," Stirrup said. "Will our not accepting the stimulus dollars in Prince William make a difference [in the national debt]? No, it will be somewhat like a grain of sand, but I think it will send a strong message."

Walts said the school system typically hires 400 to 800 teachers a year and thus could absorb the positions next year. The funding, he said, would have helped lower class sizes, meet AYP standards and leverage additional funding from Virginia's class-size reduction grants.

Walts said the school system is always interviewing and will have a pool of qualified candidates ready in case the stimulus funding becomes available later in the year. But the process will not be as seamless as it would have been, he said.

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